PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — It’s hard to not be anxious during the spring melt when you sit beneath the level of rushing water flowing past your multi-generational business and farm.
But for Dave and Roland Jeffries, this spring is unusually relaxed with nobody now expecting much flooding to occur along the Assini-boine and Red rivers.
However, flooding and the frequent disruption to farmers from water issues is the main topic of conversation at the Jeffries’ large vegetable-growing operations along the Assiniboine on this late March morning.
“They just don’t care,” said Dave Jeffries about what he sees as neglect and mismanagement of the Assiniboine river system during the NDP government’s 16 years in power.
That’s something Ian Wishart doesn’t mind hearing.
“It’s the management of the system that is generating the problem,” he said, promising that a Progressive Conservative government would take farmland flooding more seriously than the NDP has.
Wishart is the MLA for Portage La Prairie, a river city surrounded by high-value agriculture industries such as vegetable and processing potato production.
Those industries have developed because of the area’s abundant water supply and silty soil, which are invaluable resources for farm production often worth thousands of dollars per acre.
The resource is also a danger when the water spills out or rises too high and inundates the land.
As a result, water management here is a top-of-mind issue, which Wishart thinks plays well for his party.
However, it’s also the feeling a couple of hundred kilometres to the northeast on Tom Nevakshonoff’s farm at Poplarfield.
The conservation minister in the last government proudly recounts its accomplishments in water protection legislation, seeing the NDP era as a golden age in environmental protection.
However, he fumes when he thinks about a key piece of surface water management legislation that died this spring when the legislative session ended and the election campaign began.
“It was really unfortunate, after all the work that went into this,” said Nevakshonoff, who is running for re-election. “All of this work lost, and now will have to be reconstituted in the next legislature.”
Water issues are a far bigger part of Manitoba’s farming politics than they are in the other prairie provinces.
It lies at the bottom of a number of major drainage systems, including the Red, Assiniboine and Souris rivers, and too much water entering the system in any part of a huge swath of Western Canada often causes problems downstream in Manitoba.
Water politics have been heated in the province during the NDP years. The government outraged many farmers and farm groups with water legislation that partially blamed hog producers for the water quality problems of Lake Winnipeg.
The NDP government first imposed a moratorium on hog barn construction in the Red River Valley, then expanded it to a province-wide ban in 2011 on the eve of the last provincial election.
Echoes of that appeared March 22 when NDP leader Greg Selinger announced $500,000 in additional funding for Lake Winnipeg research.
The government said it had “stopped unsustainable hog barn expansion in sensitive areas to reduce the excessive amount of nutrients flowing into Lake Winnipeg.”
However, the announcement focused far more on nutrient pollution from the province’s major cities and did not target farmers.
Another explosive issue has been the massive flooding around Lake Manitoba, which was greatly increased by the use of the Portage Diversion to move water north from the Assiniboine River into the lake. An adequate outlet at the north end of the lake meant that the extra water flooded tens of thousands of acres of pastureland and threatened to make many cattle operations unsustainable if the problems continue.
The NDP government has vowed to build a half billion dollar outlet to alleviate the problem, and the PCs said Marach 23 that it will not only do the same but can also be trusted to complete the outlet.
Jamal Abas, who is running for the Liberals in Nevakshonoff’s riding, is trying to swing voters from the NDP and PCs toward his party, which he says is the best option for farmers suffering water problems.
He said that unlike the NDP, the Liberals will care about the impact of flooding on farmers and work to build infrastructure to combat it. Unlike the PCs, he said his party won’t slash government spending so fast that there is nothing left for infrastructure investment.
The immediate concern on Nevakshonoff’s farm is getting re-elected, and he has a busy day ahead of campaigning and talking to voters. He said the NDP needs more time to get legislation passed for water management to improve in Manitoba.
And in Portage La Prairie, Wishart tells the Jeffries that mismanagement of Manitoba’s water system will end the day his party is elected.
Water is never far from politics In Manitoba farm country, and this election is no exception.