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If it's not too dry, it's too wet

Southwestern Manitoba farmers forced to deal with droughts, flooding

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MELITA -- In a cruel case of climatological irony, the portion of the province most prone to drying out gets struck by floods almost as frequently.

Southwestern Manitoba is the eastern edge of the Palliser Triangle, a semi-arid expanse of prairie that stretches all the way west to the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Statistically speaking, that means the municipalities around Melita receive less precipitation than other areas of the province, forcing cattle and grain farmers to deal with seven droughts over the past 35 years.

The last major drought struck the region in 2008.

Other recent droughts took place in 2002, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1979 and 1976.

Some of the same farmers who endured these dry spells have also had to deal with flooding on the Souris River, which typically surges in the spring before mellowing out into a trickle by the summer.

The Souris spilled over its banks significantly in 2009, 2001 and 1976, the latter year offering the region a double-disaster -- a drought-flood whammy.

Provincial flood forecasters predict another major flood this spring, when the Souris is expected to spill its banks but crest below its 2009 peak, which briefly threatened the town of Melita.

Disaster-weary farmers, however, are merely resigned to another in a series of major financial headaches.

"What do you do with the weather? It's something you don't have much control over," said Jim Trewin, a former grain farmer who's now reeve of the Rural Municipality of Arthur.

"I've dealt with a lot more dry years than I did floods, but lately we've had floods. A lot of people won't get crops off this year."

The flood on the Souris this year will be particularly cruel for grain farmers, who desperately want to take advantage of high commodity prices.

Bert Kirkup, who farms on the west side of the Souris River, fears he won't be able to plant his productive riverfront plots -- for the fourth time in a decade.

"We would certainly like to get in the riverfront land, because canola and wheat prices are so good," he said, adding he's also had three recent years when he got crops in, only to see late-season floods wash them away.

Although its levels vary with the seasons, the Souris is not completely uncontrolled.

In southeastern Saskatchewan, where the river begins, the Rafferty Dam west of Estevan and the Alameda Dam on Moose Mountain Creek protect downstream communities, most notably the city of Minot, N.D.

The river is known as the Mouse in the United States before it flows back into Manitoba near the village of Coulter.

It's then joined by the Antler River before flowing past four significant Manitoba towns -- Melita, Hartney, Souris and Wawanesa -- before it drains into the Assiniboine River.

Souris has some diking in place, while Melita suffered from periodic river floods until 2009, when the province spent $500,000 to raise the dikes, as well as Highway 3.

Only a handful of businesses outside town, including the Melita Motel, may need to be sandbagged this spring, said Bob Walker, Melita's mayor.

The only thing that concerns him this spring is the unlikely but unpleasant prospect of Melita's sewage lagoons -- which sit outside the dike -- being inundated.

"The town of Souris would be very unhappy," he said, wryly.

But he is not overconfident.

"The river is as high as I've ever seen it at this time of year," said Walker, standing on part of the two-year-old dike.

"I guess we'll see what happens."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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