Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Selfish' farmers again sacrificing their livelihoods for greater good

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People around Lake Manitoba need to be less selfish. Really? This comment was made in response to an online post showing farmland flooding from the intentional breaches on the west dike of the Portage Diversion. It went on, "The theory is to sacrifice a few to save the many" and questioned "...flood farmland and compensate farmers, or allow entire cities to flood?"

I know farmers who whole-heartedly agree and say, "Absolutely, my farmland is the right place for the water to go." Sound selfish to you?

But that water shouldn't be on farmland, or any property around the lake, in the first place. Proactive steps should have been taken from recommendations after the technical review of the 2011 flood. Despite the unprecedented amount of rainfall to the west, forethought and proper management could have averted this disastrous situation.

Farmers and ranchers once again will take a financial hit to protect others, despite the fact Lake Manitoba is not a flood plain. Unfortunately, when the Portage Diversion was constructed in 1970, it became a man-made, government-controlled one. Farmers had no choice in the matter. They were promised the use of the "fail-safe" (a low area at the north end of the dike designed to help with water flow when there were ice jams) would be minimal. Yet, this has not been the case.

Third-generation farmer, Mark Peters, knows this more than anyone. He lives about six kilometres from Lake Manitoba on the west side of the diversion. Despite being almost 20 kilometres from the Assiniboine River, its water has been on his land so many times he has lost track. 2011 was by far the worst. Notwithstanding the continual water woes, he doesn't want the diversion closed. Like many others, he merely wants to see it, Lake Manitoba and the dikes along the Assiniboine properly maintained and operated so flooding adjacent farmland and property is not a recurring issue.

Continually inundating farm-land and seepage from the diversion diminishes income as well as the productivity of land -- only lower-value crops such as barley and hay can be grown. Higher value crops such as beans and potatoes do not flourish in saline soil.

As a result, Peters has a lot of hay. In 2011 his hay field beside the diversion was flooded. In 2012 the ground was still saturated. He couldn't re-seed until 2013. This year he was set to take off his first crop since 2010.

Cutting and baling were already underway when he phoned the province on July 2, to ask how much time he had before the wall of water heading down the Assiniboine was diverted to Lake Manitoba. He was told five days. Unfortunately he had less than 24 hours -- what began as a trickle over the fail-safe turned into a much larger stream overnight. On July 4, the province began a series of intentional breaches in that area; flood waters poured out of the diversion into his field. In a matter of hours, the bales, swathes, and remaining stand of hay were under a foot of water. Now all you can see are the top halves of those large round bales. Years of income lost again.

From an aerial view, it appears more water is pouring over the fail-safe than out the end of the diversion, swallowing up farmers' crops up to six kilometres away, stealing their income as it steadily moves inland.

Will they and Peters be compensated? In a phone call last week the government's response was, "That's a good question." Yes, there is crop insurance and excess moisture coverage but it is not set up to cover deliberate and long-term flooding. On Thursday, Premier Greg Selinger told the press there are no other programs.

Past compensation has been neither fair nor adequate. Farmers are willing to protect people and communities downstream on the Assiniboine, including Winnipeg. But should they have to sacrifice their livelihoods to do so? They were promised 100 per cent compensation for all years affected, plus financial aid in returning land to its pre-flood state. This did not happen.

On July 9, Peters was not only fighting to protect his valuable crop of seed potatoes, southwest of the fail-safe, he was also digging up his fields to build a berm around his yard and his parent's yard. Attempts to dike a municipal road, north of their homes, south of the fail-safe, have proven futile. Despite not living on a flood plain, he must now fight to protect his home as he helplessly watches his income drown.

With Lake Manitoba above flood level at 814.27 feet and rising three-quarters of an inch daily, wind will now be the enemy. It can push the lake up to five kilometres inland, as happened in 2011. Every day will bring uncertainty. The lake will not peak until mid-August and the water will take months to recede.

Should the Peters family, and others around Lake Manitoba, have to bear the costs of protecting Winnipeg? Is it selfish to want a paycheque for your work? Is it selfish not to want to worry every time the wind blows? Is it selfish to want immediate solutions so this doesn't happen again?

"Our focus is on looking after people," Selinger says. Really? Then please step up to the plate. Last time I checked, farmers and ranchers were people too.

 

Sandi Knight is a farm wife and freelance writer who lives south of Lake Manitoba, west of the Portage Diversion.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2014 A11

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Updated on Friday, July 11, 2014 at 11:47 AM CDT: Adds video

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