December 10, 2019

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Deluges, drainage and despair

Heavy precipitation and unchecked drainage have turned southwestern Manitoba into swampland

PIERSON — In the southwestern corner of the province, field after field is overrun by weeds. Roads and bridges are washed out. Fences are destroyed. Cattails grow where crops once thrived.

It’s a virtual wasteland.

Flood waters on the Souris River downstream from the community of Melita on July 3, 2014.

BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN FILES

Flood waters on the Souris River downstream from the community of Melita on July 3, 2014.

Here, on the eastern fringe of the Palliser Triangle — an area of the Prairies once thought too dry to produce crops — people are wondering whether the land will ever dry up. Fears of drought have given way to fears of rain, so much rain that roads will be again washed out and lakes will spring up spontaneously on fields.

Many farmers in the municipalities that hug the Saskatchewan border have not been able to plant some or all of their fields for the past three years due to excess soil moisture.

Grain growers fear bankruptcy if the situation continues. Local politicians fear their tax base will erode if property values plummet. Even a thriving local oil industry is worried, as repeated municipal road closures, due to excessive moisture, and restricted road-load limits threaten productivity and profitability.

Farmers blame a succession of heavy rains and unchecked farmland drainage in eastern Saskatchewan — and to a lesser extent in western Manitoba — for their predicament. The locals don’t think the Manitoba government has done enough to press Saskatchewan to tackle the drainage issue, and they argue drainage scofflaws on this side of the border are largely ignored.

On June 5, the RM of Edward, which is bordered by both the United States and Saskatchewan, declared a state of emergency as 65 kilometres of road were flooded. Then things got worse. A deluge around the July long weekend cut great gashes in fields, breached roads, ripped out culverts and threatened the village of Pierson, which had never faced an overland flood threat before. Local officials rapidly dug a trench and cut the local highway in several places to divert the water and save the town.

The volume and the force of the flow were unlike anything anyone in the area had witnessed. After all, no creek or river even passes through Pierson.

Municipal Counsellor Debbie McMechan in front of a washed out municipal road near Pierson.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Municipal Counsellor Debbie McMechan in front of a washed out municipal road near Pierson.

"It came like a wall of water from the west," said Debbie McMechan, a local municipal councillor.

In the past, a summer rain — even a large, ferocious one — would drain relatively slowly into ditches and creeks before winding up in rivers — and eventually Lake Winnipeg.

But over the years, the region’s landscape has changed — some would say irrevocably. Increased drainage work to the west has caused water from heavy rains to arrive much quicker and in overwhelming volumes. Low-lying areas that were once seeded have become mini-lakes. Water tables, due to successive years of abnormally high rainfall, are so high tractors get stuck in fields even if the crust of the soil is dry. So any sizable rain packs a wallop.

"The increased drainage has caused water to come up in areas that we’ve never seen it before. Ravines on the land have sprung to life," said McMechan.

What effect have soaked soils had on local agriculture? Consider this: In the RM of Edward, 85 per cent of all insured cropland this spring could not be seeded due to excess field moisture. And that figure only includes farmers who could afford government-subsidized insurance. The situation was nearly as bad in neighbouring municipalities. All told, close to one million acres of cropland went unseeded in the province this year, about a quarter of it in three small municipalities in the southwest corner.

Farmers who raise cattle are also getting hit, as flooding has destroyed fences and drowned hay land. Those fortunate enough to have pumpjacks on their land are receiving cheques from oil companies. But most farmers are feeling the financial crunch.

Government-subsidized crop insurance pays a minimum of $50 an acre and a maximum of $100 per acre for fields that can’t be seeded, depending on the package a farmer chooses. But when farmers collect on their insurance, their coverage becomes more expensive. Lose three or four crops in a row — as many in this region have — and the net payback is substantially reduced.

Cheryl Arndt looks down from an earth and stone dam just outside the Manitoba border in Saskatchewan near Pierson. The dammed river flooded and bypassed the dam leaving empty spillways and debris in the wake of its new channel and flooding areas downstream. Rain has left it barren this year.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cheryl Arndt looks down from an earth and stone dam just outside the Manitoba border in Saskatchewan near Pierson. The dammed river flooded and bypassed the dam leaving empty spillways and debris in the wake of its new channel and flooding areas downstream. Rain has left it barren this year.

Cheryl Arndt, who farms along the Saskatchewan border, west of Pierson, with her husband, Ed, says the couple was only able to seed 500 acres this spring of the 6,000 they own or rent.

Heavy rains delayed the maturation of crops they did manage to seed, and it’s doubtful they could access much of it with combines in any case without getting their equipment stuck. As of earlier this week, they had yet to harvest an acre.

"Every little cloud this year was rain. And it wasn’t a little rain. It was severe rain," she said while taking a Free Press reporter and photographer on a tour this summer.

The Arndts supplement their virtually non-existent crop income in several ways. Ed hires himself and his equipment out to other farmers to help with field spraying and swathing. When the Free Press visited in late August, he was in southeastern Saskatchewan swathing canola. Cheryl drives a school bus on both sides of the border and raises Pony of the Americas ponies.

The inability to grow crops is sapping equity, built up through decades of hard work, for farmers like the Arndts. For those just starting out, it could spell financial doom.

Municipal Counsellor Carey Murray

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Municipal Counsellor Carey Murray

After several years of losses, will some farmers go bankrupt? "They will be this year," Cheryl predicted. "How do you ask for more credit when you’ve got no way to pay for it?"

Carey Murray has farmed for 40 years near Lyleton, a skipping stone’s throw from the Saskatchewan and U.S. borders. He recalls when grasshoppers ate up crops in the 1980s. But those tough times pale by comparison to the destruction farmers are witnessing now.

Murray raises cattle with a brother. They also rent out about 2,500 acres of cropland to other farmers. "They’ve (the renters) not had a crop for three years, not an acre," he said.

It’s been no picnic for cattle producers, either. Flooded-out fences have to be replaced, and feed is at a premium because of drowned-out hay fields.

Road washouts and closures make it difficult for ranchers to check on their animals, which are more prone to hoof problems when they spend too much time standing in wet pastures. Earlier this year, Murray had to travel 20 kilometres just to reach a spot a few hundred metres from his farmstead due to washouts.

He said some beef cattle producers were unable to transport bulls to some of their cows, meaning the animals did not get bred. That resulted in a loss of income.

Terry (left) shrugs while his father Art Shuddemat points out the Souris River which, at half a mile wide, covers over 400 acres of productive farmland on their farm near Melita.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Terry (left) shrugs while his father Art Shuddemat points out the Souris River which, at half a mile wide, covers over 400 acres of productive farmland on their farm near Melita.

Northeast of Melita in the RM of Cameron, grain and cattle producer Terry Schuddemat scans the horizon and points to a bloated Souris River, the water visible from his farm 1.5 kilometres away.

It’s late August, and the river is still covering hundreds of acres he once used to seed. He expects the stream — which never seems to recede — will still be overflowing its banks in October.

"It used to flood, and then we could always seed (fields along the river) late," he said. "Now (the water) comes and it stays all year."

His father, Art, 75, said he’s never seen so much water in all his life. And the water is flowing where it’s never gone before — like right through a neighbour’s barn.

At the Schuddemat farmstead, Art was pumping water out of the basement of his home due to seepage, something he’s never had to do before.

The Schuddemats, like many others in the southwest, blame more than heavy rains for the problems. It’s also increased drainage, they say.

"When it does rain, everything just comes so fast," Art said.

"It’s like pulling the plug on the tub, she just comes out all at once," his son added.

In Manitoba, farmers must obtain permits to build field drains, but that isn’t the case in neighbouring Saskatchewan. There, the only check on drainage is a complaints-based system after the fact. If landowners feel they’re being harmed by someone’s ditch, they can file a complaint, and eventually an order may be made to fill it.

Water flows unrestricted through an illegally "cut" drainage ditch that removed a smaller culvert from an access road to the field. Instead of a controlled slower drainage, it releases a rush of water onto neighboring fields near Pierson, Man.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Water flows unrestricted through an illegally "cut" drainage ditch that removed a smaller culvert from an access road to the field. Instead of a controlled slower drainage, it releases a rush of water onto neighboring fields near Pierson, Man.

This year, Manitobans aren’t the only ones who have had a gripe with the waves of water coming from the west. As of late August, there were 105 requests to the Saskatchewan government for assistance to resolve drainage disputes — most from the southeastern corner of the province near the Manitoba border. Many of the complaints came after the rain-induced flash flooding in late June and early July, said a spokesman for Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency. Another 14 complaints had reached a formal stage where the province investigates the matter and potentially issues an order to fill a drain.

Manitobans aren’t just blaming Saskatchewan farmers for their troubles. They’re also pointing fingers at some Manitoba landowners along the border who, facing waves of water coming from the west, have built illegal ditches to prevent it from collecting on their fields.

But someone downstream always pays the price.

"Ten years ago, before all that drainage happened, we could stand a six- to eight-inch (150-200 mm) rain," said Murray, the Lyleton cattle producer and RM of Edward councillor. "But now it hits those drains and it just comes like, bang!"

Over the past half century, wetlands drainage has changed the Prairie landscape.

A recent detailed study of a small watershed in Saskatchewan close to the Manitoba border near Russell, about 250 kilometres north of the soggy southwest corner, has raised eyebrows.

The University of Saskatchewan study, led by Prof. John Pomeroy, Canada research chair in water resources and climate change, found over the last 55 years the 400-square-kilometre area, referred to as the Smith Creek research basin, saw its wetlands area reduced to 10 per cent from 25 per cent.

Farmers drain sloughs and field potholes to expand their cropping area. The result is there are fewer places for water — either from snowmelt or rainfall — to gather in fields. It then runs off the land more quickly.

Weary and waterlogged

Cheryl Arndt walks past an antique combine. Its auger, which was once 20 feet above ground, sticks out of debris left behind after an earth and stone dam just outside the Manitoba border in Saskatchewan near Pierson, Man., burst.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cheryl Arndt walks past an antique combine. Its auger, which was once 20 feet above ground, sticks out of debris left behind after an earth and stone dam just outside the Manitoba border in Saskatchewan near Pierson, Man., burst.

The people in southwestern Manitoba don’t need an Environment Canada climatologist to tell them they’re going through a wet period.

But, just for the record, they are, says Dave Phillips.

"What we’re seeing in the last 11 years is one of the wettest (periods) ever," said the author of the annual Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar.

The Free Press asked Phillips about precipitation patterns in the southwest corner of the province, where many farmers have not been able to plant crops on some or all of their land for the past three years or more.

There are gaps in rainfall data for towns such as Melita and Pierson, so Phillips used data produced out of Brandon, the closest regional centre.

He went back 55 years and tallied precipitation for each calendar year. The average annual precipitation was 470 millimetres. Any year that exceeded that amount he deemed a wet year; years where rain and snow fell below that was designated a dry year.

For 2014, he fashioned a total based on total accumulations till August plus normal precipitation for the remainder of the year.

So far, the period since 2004 is the wettest in southwestern Manitoba in more than half a century, with an average annual precipitation of 520 mm, 50 mm above the long-term average. The driest was between 1978 and 1989, when the average was 431. Total precipitation this year in Brandon through Aug. 26 was 512 mm, with 436 mm coming since May 1.

Phillips said the most interesting period he examined was between 1998 and 2003. The three-year stretch between 1998-2000 was the wettest in more than half a century, while 2001-2003 was the driest three-year period since 1955.

The lesson in all the research, he said, is the unpredictability of weather patterns.

"A wet year one year does not mean you’re going to get a dry year the next year and vice versa. You can’t use one year to predict the next year."

For the waterlogged southwest, there’s always hope for next year.

Dessicated with herbicide, green foxtail (an out-of-control weed on the soggy fields) glows under the midday sky reflected in an accumulated rainwater pond in what was a cultivated grain field once, near Pierson Man.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dessicated with herbicide, green foxtail (an out-of-control weed on the soggy fields) glows under the midday sky reflected in an accumulated rainwater pond in what was a cultivated grain field once, near Pierson Man.

Wetland drainage can have a profound effect on stream flows. Pomeroy said in the 2011 flood, the impact was roughly one-third. "If you look at the drainage from the late 1950s to the current time, it added roughly one-third to the flow, to the (flood) peaks. And if we kept draining from the current state to where there were no wetlands left, it would increase the peak by another third again," he said in an interview.

Wetland drainage has had a profound effect on the severity of floods Manitoba has suffered in recent years, provincial experts believe. A laissez-faire attitude toward drainage and more frequent spectacular summer rains have produced a ripple effect that can be felt all the way to Winnipeg and Lake Winnipeg, where most water from Prairie streams winds up.

People in southwestern Manitoba argue the Selinger government has not done enough to confront Saskatchewan over its drainage policies. The province counters it has raised the matter with Saskatchewan authorities since at least the mid-1990s, but, it admits, with little success. And now the damage is done.

"We’ve got to get a handle on this land-use-change issue," said Steve Topping, Manitoba’s executive director of hydrologic forecasting and water management. "It’s been increasing at alarming rates, and we need to mitigate the impacts of land-use change through drainage regulation, through restoring wetlands, through preserving wetlands."

In June, the Manitoba government unveiled a wetlands strategy to rejuvenate Lake Winnipeg and lower the risk of flooding and drought. Fewer drainage licences are to be issued, and when they are, applicants will have to compensate for the loss, either by constructing another wetland or possibly purchasing wetland credits.

From left: Counsellor Debbie McMechen, Reeve Ralph Wang and Counsellor Carey Murray at a creek crossing that washed out a municipal road near Pierson, Man.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

From left: Counsellor Debbie McMechen, Reeve Ralph Wang and Counsellor Carey Murray at a creek crossing that washed out a municipal road near Pierson, Man.

The province is also hoping a new Assiniboine River basin commission, with representatives from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota, will help tackle this and other complex cross-jurisdiction water-management issues. Manitoba has contributed some seed money to get the organization off the ground.

Manitoba is also taking some consolation in the fact that Saskatchewan has developed a new long-term water-management strategy that promises to amend drainage regulations.

But Patrick Boyle, a spokesman for Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency, said there is no timetable for regulatory reform, noting the process is still in the consultation phase.

"We want to get everyone’s opinion on this issue before you move forward to developing new regulations and legislation," he said.

Boyle also challenged the notion wetland drainage in Saskatchewan contributed to the severity of this summer’s flooding in Manitoba. He said the July long weekend flood was the result of "an unprecedented amount of rainfall" over a three-day period on an already saturated landscape. He said peak flows on the Assiniboine River just inside the Manitoba border were actually higher in 1922 than they were this year, and there was little drainage done at the time.

Boyle also cited a 2011 precipitation/runoff study that concluded wetland drainage and changes in farming practices had not had "a net detectable influence" on Assiniboine River flows.

Further, he said, it would be wrong to make generalizations from the Pomeroy report and apply it outside the study area’s confines.

Pomeroy disagrees. Told of the Saskatchewan government official’s comment, he said the geographic area he studied "is not topographically different from other relatively level sites in the Prairie pothole region."

"The hydrology model we have developed has been applied successfully in southern Manitoba, west and central Prairie-parkland regions in Saskatchewan, the parkland region of Alberta as well as the prairies in Patagonia (in South America) and western China," he said in an email.

While wetlands drainage has contributed to the problems people experienced in southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan, so have the severity of summer rainstorms, Pomeroy said.

The streams that feed the Assiniboine River have traditionally risen with the snowmelt then slowed to a trickle for the summer. That pattern began to shift in 2012, Pomeroy said, when big summer rains created summertime river peaks. But never have summer rains produced a massive flood until this year.

"There’s no record of it ever occurring since settlement of the Prairies," Pomeroy said. "So when you see something like that you say, ‘Wow, that’s a different climate.’ "

Governments may need to develop new systems for managing water and reservoirs, he said.

"What we do in Western Canada right now is not anywhere near (as sophisticated as what’s) run in the United States or western Europe. And I think we’re paying the price for that," he said.

In the U.S., the federal government plays a key role in flood forecasting and water management. In Canada, this work is left to the provinces.

In fact, Ottawa has withdrawn some of the water-management services it used to provide. Gone is the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), which helped farmers cope with drought, water management and other issues. Gone, too, is a national hydrology research institute, formerly in Saskatoon, and a national inland-waters directorate that provided advice to the provinces.

"We’ve left it to the provinces now," Pomeroy said.

Meanwhile, farmers in the wet southwest are already bracing for another tough year next year. With soils soaked as winter approaches, any snowmelt next spring will wash right off fields, causing more flooding problems.

Many fear the worst is yet to come.

Septuagenarian Art Schuddemat vividly recalls winters in the 1950s, when the region, like the rest of the Prairies, received massive snowfalls.

"If we get winters like that, I think you’re going to see water like you’ve never seen before," he said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Crop insurance claims (Top 5 municipalities)

Municipality Insured acres Acres too wet to seed Total claims Total payout
Pipestone 143,651 99,428 126 $8.4 million
Albert 98,291 76,494 107 $6.6 million
Edward 90,544 76,560 98 $6.4 million
Arthur 117,631 54,165 82 $4.2 million
Dauphin 162,660 43,836 131 $2.7 million

Source: Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp.

 

Unprecedented destruction

People along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border are still marvelling at the effects of a late-June downpour that ripped out bridges and culverts and even carved out new creek channels.

They tell stories of floodwaters reaching the main floor of some rural homes, of people being stranded on farms, of an individual who was transported by an oil-company helicopter off his property so he could receive dialysis treatment and of near-death experiences.

"We’ve never seen anything like this kind of destruction," said longtime Lyleton-area farmer and RM of Edward councillor Carey Murray. The RM hugs the Saskatchewan and U.S. borders.

As much as 200 millimetres of rain fell in some communities — some farmers say they recorded up to 240 mm in their rain gauges.

A small dam at Redvers, Sask., was breached, as was another at Gainsborough, Sask., a few kilometres away from the Manitoba border. All water drains east into Manitoba.

A story told and retold to a Free Press reporter and photographer on a recent trip involved a Pierson-area farmer who set off down a flooded road on his tractor to try to retrieve an empty steel grain bin that was floating away. At one point his tractor tipped, he scrambled out of the cab and clung for dear life to a barbed-wire fence to keep from being washed away in a torrent of water. He was rescued by his brother, who had come out with his own tractor.

The Gainsborough Creek, which bisects the RM of Edward, flooded massively, causing considerable road damage. Just across the border in Saskatchewan, creek flows were so great and powerful a tiny dam built in 1962 by the now-defunct Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) was breached. The force of the water carved a new channel for the creek on the south side of the dam with banks as high as 10 metres in some spots.

Cheryl Arndt, who farms with her husband, Ed on the Manitoba side of the border, took the Free Press on a tour of the site.

Just north of the new creek channel, she showed us a vintage self-propelled combine that had been parked on a rise. It was nearly entirely covered in sand in the deluge, with just the tip of its auger showing.

— Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

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