Regular flooding in southwest corner costs millions and affects thousands

... and so far, solutions are coming up dry


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LAUDER, Man. — Perched on a dry patch of pasture, Matt Van Steelandt surveys the scene around his ranch where huge pockets of his land are submerged under water.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/04/2017 (2053 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LAUDER, Man. — Perched on a dry patch of pasture, Matt Van Steelandt surveys the scene around his ranch where huge pockets of his land are submerged under water.

In the distance, Van Steelandt can see about 50 of his bulls stranded on a hill, surrounded by a small lake that suddenly appeared in early April. The land where his cows were supposed to calve this spring is under water, too, just like about two-thirds of his 1,700-acre property.

To his right, there is a washed-out provincial road, with a gap about 10 yards wide, where water is running through like a babbling brook.

Already, Van Steelandt is stressed about the immediate future. Where will he take the cows to calve? When will his pasture drain? And the most pressing concern of all: What if it rains?

“Now I have a constant worry about whether I’m going to have a livelihood,” said the 30-year-old, who runs the 500-head operation with his parents, just south of Hartney, some 275 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. “I’m in scramble mode. It’s getting really stressful, actually.”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Matt Van Steelandt, a rancher in the Lauder area of southwestern Manitoba, walks across a a dike to get across a municipal road that connects his land that washed out due to flooding, April 12, 2017

Van Steelandt isn’t alone. Hundreds of grain and cattle producers in southwestern Manitoba are experiencing significant flooding for the third time in the last six years, although it has yet to reach the levels of 2011 and 2014.

Still, the damages to property and crops — not to mention the emotional toll — continue to mount. In the municipality of Two Borders, situated in the province’s southwest tip along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, the damage caused by washed-out roads this spring is estimated at between $8-$10 million — when the entire annual budget is between $6-7 million.

In addition, municipal officials say “thousands” of acres of land in Two Borders is currently under water. Several families in the region have been forced to relocate due to road washouts, denying them access to their homes.

Two Borders has declared a local state of emergency and plans to apply for Disaster Assistance Funding from the province.

In the neighbouring Grasslands municipality, to the east — which includes Van Steelandt’s property — the damage is around $1 million, according to reeve Blair Woods.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Matt Van Steelandt tends to his bulls that are surrounded in floodwater on his farm. April 12, 2017

“The stress level is just unreal,” Woods said. “The economics of that (the damages) could be devastating.”

But the culprit for flooding in southwestern Manitoba, which drains into the Souris River, then the Assiniboine River, and then all the way to Winnipeg, is not just normal spring runoff, producers and leaders contend. The heart of the problem is the evolution of drainage practices in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that have essentially created a funnel that impacts landowners downstream, they say.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Debbie McMechan, reeve of Two Borders. “We’ve had a lot of snow this winter, but there’s no question it has to do with increased drainage upstream.”

In the last two decades, producers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been removing “potholes” on their land, which once held pools of runoff in low-lying areas, allowing for a table-top affect, said Van Steelandt, echoing the complaint of several farmers.

“It’s flooding now every two years and it’s happening because of farming practices and political decisions made upstream,” he said. “If one person does it, no problem. But if everybody does it, holy crap.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Van Steelandt uses his quad to get through the high waters on his land.

“The grain farmers aren’t trying to be malicious,” he added. “They’re trying to make a living. But it does have consequences.”

It’s simple economics: The faster farmers can drain their land, particularly in low-lying areas, the more they can seed, and sooner.

As local cattle producer Anthony Bond, who was also forced from his home for a couple of days last week due to road washouts, explained of grain farm drainage: “When land is worth so much per acre, you want to get as much money (in harvest) as you can.”

Van Steelandt said huge grain farmers on either side of the border now “have as much drainage equipment as a landscaping business.”

It’s not just drainage, either. Van Steelandt said existing agricultural practices are lowering the level of soil carbon, which helps water retention. “Our lands don’t hold as much water as it did 100 years ago,” he said.

At present, the saturation level for soil along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border is already maxed out after a fall-winter precipitation that was 200 per cent above normal, said John Pomeroy, the director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan.

“So basically, you’ve got a combination of extremely high soil moisture… and concrete frost, so everything runs off,” he said. “That combination is going to cause a flood.”

In areas where sloughs or potholes have been extensively drained, the potential for flooding is magnified, he added.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Van Steelandt: 'I’m in scramble mode. It’s getting really stressful, actually'

“The farmers are draining because they’re having trouble getting onto their land,” he said. “They’re trying to cultivate and there’s economic reasons to do that. Almost everyone is upstream from someone and downstream from someone else. So I’d argue that they’re both victims but also sometimes make the problem a little bit worse.”

Lauder-area farmer Cliff Penno was more blunt. “These guys who are draining don’t give a rat’s ass who they’re draining to. It becomes ‘What about me?’ All they want to do is get the water off their land,” Penno said.

Fines for illegal drainage that can range between $5,000-$10,000 are “loose change” for large grain outfits, he added, noting, “You know what that ($5,000) is? Four of my worst cows.”

And while residents and producers along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border might be on the front lines, they stress the flooding they’re experiencing can affect thousands of Manitobans downstream. For example, residents of the town of Wawanesa, situated along the Souris River to the east, are now erected sandbags, bracing for crest levels.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Wayne Drummond and his wife Donna, who has been farming in the Lauder area of southwestern Manitoba for 50 years, had to evacuate their home and are living in a trailer.

After all, water in the south eventually flows into the Souris, which flows in the Assiniboine, which flows into the Red.

But Pomeroy said there’s yet another factor involved in the increased instances of flooding: global climate change.

Over the last century, research has shown increasing incidents of substantial rains in the region in the fall and rain on snow in the spring, which creates an ice layer and greater runoff, noted the professor.

“The changes are that the precipitation is becoming more extreme,” added Pomeroy, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change.

Regardless, the affects are happening now.

Take Wayne and Donna Drummond, who for the last week have been living in their camper — hooked up to the Lauder Community Centre — because they can’t access their farm in vehicles because of washed-out roads.

Wayne Drummond drives to the farm house each day on an ATV to feed the family dog and cats and check the home for flooding. They could be out of their home for up to two months, depending on how fast the water recedes.

“I want to be able to put a crop in and I can’t get anything (equipment) out right now,” Drummond said.

A few kilometres away, Samantha and Brent Steg and their three children are now crashing in their neighbour’s home after evacuating theirs last Sunday. The home is now filled with 10 people and three dogs. “But we’re making it work,” Samantha chuckled, in a phone interview.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Wayne Drummond stands on the roadway leading to his property that has been washed away.

But good humour is mostly to help cope with questions and stress mounting in the community.

“It’s all anyone really talks about,” Steg said. “They’re asking, ‘Has the water crested yet? When is it going down?’”

The ultimate question remains: How to solve a problem that is costing millions, stressing thousands, and only seeming to getting worse?

According to local farmers, potential solutions could include providing incentives to producers to keep their sloughs or potholes, increasing fines on illegal drainage at least tenfold and altering agricultural farming practices to increase water retention in the soil.

“I want common sense put back into the equation,” said McMechan, who also wants the province to pressure Saskatchewan to address drainage concerns in Manitoba. “We’re in a cycle of wreck and repair. The devastation we’re dealing with… this is going to happen day in and day out. It’s terrible.”

Twitter: @randyturner15

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Wayne Drummond uses a quad to check his property.
Randy Turner

Randy Turner

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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