Originally published August 4, 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press
No one wants to discuss it. Even those most affected are careful how they reply when asked about it: “Do you really want to know or are you just being polite?” Because in fact, yes, flooding is still an ongoing issue around Lake Manitoba.
As I write this, gale force winds are increasing the lake level in the south basin by five feet or more. Significant and powerful wave action will force water inland up to two to three miles, flooding pasture, hay-land and crops. It is the fourth time in five years that an over-flowing Lake Manitoba has stolen the income of farmers and ranchers.
Imagine owning a modest, ten table restaurant. You and your family are making a decent living, able to pay your bills, look after your home, send your children to school and financially contribute to your community. Your restaurant is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme, but you’re financially stable, providing a service along with local employment.
Then one year, the government decides to shut down five of your tables. The next year two or three. There is nothing wrong with your tables or your restaurant, they just aren’t allowing you to use them to ensure the restaurant down the road in a larger, more important centre can remain viable. You still have all your overhead costs but your ability to generate an income has dramatically decreased. How long could you keep your doors open? Would you find this government action acceptable? What would you do?
In 2013, farmers tried to bring attention to their plight with a peaceful 12-hour protest at the Portage Diversion. The government labeled them “angry, irresponsible farmers” and court orders were served. A meeting was held alongside the diversion last July when record flows of Assiniboine River water were once again thrust into Lake Manitoba, bringing it above flood level, but no other public gatherings have taken place since.
Countless phone calls and e-mails, and months of waiting are required to get a response, if any, from the departments of Agriculture and Infrastructure and Transportation. This month a joint letter from both departments to our farm stated, “To protect as many Manitoba homes and properties as possible, our government managed water flow with the Portage Diversion.” Well that management continues to cause significant financial losses for producers all around the lake. But instead of compensation, the response we received, “We recognize the impact flooding has had on individuals like yourself, and appreciate your contributions to Manitoba’s agriculture sector.” Unbelievable.
Farmers and ranchers are in the business of food production. As long as this lake is kept full and overflowing, it is increasingly difficult to remain viable and plan for the future. If the government is intent on keeping it at high levels, tell us. Compensate for losses. Buy the intentionally submerged and quagmired land that we still have to pay taxes on despite being unable to use.
An outlet for Lake Manitoba is supposed to be built by 2020 but five more years of uncertainty, five more years of being on continual wind-watch, five more years of preventable financial losses is unacceptable. A restaurant cannot operate when the government keeps shutting down tables and a farmer or rancher cannot continue to operate when their land base is continually degraded and stolen.
The 2011 Flood wasn’t a one-in-350 year event. High water levels remained in the spring of 2012. One year of recovery was available in 2013 but any hopes of forages being re-established and seeded crops surviving was once again swept away in 2014.
Farmers and ranchers have not been fully compensated. For many, the financial losses of 2011 were only partially covered and even though multi-year compensation was promised, reimbursement continues to be denied.
And what about the emergency outlet built after 2011? That is on Lake St. Martin, not Lake Manitoba (which flows through Fairford and into Lake St. Martin). It use has been sparsely used and definitely not to full capacity.
Farmers and ranchers have been taught to be patient — a necessity in dealing with mother nature — but patience is wearing thin as financial costs of this ongoing flood continue to mount. The blatant disregard by this government to the people and communities around Lake Manitoba is astounding.
Ask yourself if you would be willing to forfeit a portion of your income four out of five years, and possibly more, to protect your neighbours from flooding. Right now, farmers and ranchers have no say, no choice. Their income is stolen, with thanks for their contribution to agriculture. Some gratitude.