Farmers, government clash over flood control measures

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — Dan Roy was thinking about his saskatoon berry farm as he rode his horse up the slope last week to look over the water rushing down the Portage Diversion.

The farm was devastated by flooding in 2011 when water deliberately released by the provincial government at the Hoop and Holler bend east of Portage la Prairie flooded fields beside the Assiniboine River.

He believes the water travelled through the thick seams of sand that run through the area to rise up beneath his orchard and partially drown it.

The bushes aborted their fruit and he still isn’t back into full production. He also received no compensation.

“I got zilch,” Roy said about the ruling that his flooding had nothing to do with the Hoop and Holler breach.

That’s why he sympathizes with the farmers who briefly obstructed the opening of the Portage Diversion April 29 by driving farm equipment onto the sides of the diversion beside the opening as provincial workers prepared to open it to clear ice in the Assiniboine River above Portage.

The farmers, from along the diversion and around Lake Manitoba, are angry that they have not been compensated for the ongoing damages caused by the provincial government’s decision in 2011 to flood Lake Manitoba rather than risk downstream flooding nearer Winnipeg.

“If I had a tractor, I would have been out there too,” said Roy, whose main home is on an acreage a little less than a kilometre from the diversion.

“I had to sell pretty well everything I had just to exist.”

The provincial government was less empathetic with the protesting farmers.

Steve Ashton, minister responsible for flood control, denounced the farmers, saying in the legislature that “what happened was irresponsible and was not acceptable. It created real risk. It put other Manitobans at risk.”

The government rushed an injunction into place, ordering the farmers off the land, but the farmers left the area before it was issued and did not go back.

The government also introduced legislation to make it illegal to obstruct water control structures and launched legal action against two of the protesters, demanding they pay for increased staff costs caused by the 12 hour delay in opening the diversion.

Ashton also denounced the provincial Progressive Conservative opposition for supporting the farmers’ complaint against the government, accusing it of encouraging the protest.

Ian Wishart, PC MLA for Portage la Prairie, scoffed at Ashton’s denunciation as he drove alongside the course of the diversion last week. He said he found out about the location and time of the protest one hour before it occurred and was doing his job as MLA in meeting with upset farmers and other constituents.

Sandi Knight, whose husband was one of the farmers at the protest, said their farm was hurt by the 2011 man-made flooding. She said it takes a lot to push farmers to publicly protest, but frustration has boiled over as both provincial and federal governments fail to deliver the compensation they promised for the flooding.

“We’re feeling left out and ignored,” said Knight, who frequently choked up as she spoke about the situation.

“We’re outside the Perimeter (Highway, which rings Winnipeg.) We’re not part of the two-thirds of the population that lives in Winnipeg, so we don’t seem to count.”

Farmers just want compensation for the flooding that was intentionally inflicted upon them, Knight said. Farmers along the diversion were hurt when failsafe weak points were breached to take pressure off the system. That not only caused local overland flooding, but also caused the water table to rise sharply and cause salinization of farmland that now can’t be used for vegetable production.

The failsafe was again blown last week as the amount of water released by the province down the diversion became much greater than officials intended.

Hundreds of cattle producers near Lake Manitoba were also hurt by the 2011 flooding, including Knight. Water spread far out beyond natural levels, drowning thousands of acres of native pasture, much of which was still underwater through most of last year. Many farmers had to sell cows and reduce their herds to have enough feed to continue.

The area is still suffering from a severe feed shortage.

Flood experts don’t expect the water flowing into the diversion this year to affect Lake Manitoba, with one estimating that it would rise only one millimetre.

However, farmers were incensed to see the provincial government going back to using the diversion again without having dealt properly with the impact of the last flood.

“We haven’t seen (premier Greg) Selinger since he stood at the Hoop and Holler on national TV and said everyone would get compensation,” said Knight.

Manitoba farm leaders sympathized with the farmers who protested, noting the failure of governments to compensate farmers adequately for their losses. They were also appalled by how harshly the provincial government handled the situation.

“I am taken aback in the level of response (from the provincial government,)” said Cam Dahl, executive director of Manitoba Beef Producers.

“I’m surprised at the degree in which the province has hit back. This has been extremely strong.”

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney was also dismayed by the government’s severe reaction.

“It’s unfortunate producers feel they have no other choice than to block the diversion. It’s a sign of the frustration they feel about being flooded again when they’re still dealing with the last one,” said Chorney.

“Why did the government not at least come out and talk to them? It would have just been a decent courtesy. They’re just farmers. It’s not like they’re criminals. And they’re being treated like criminals.”

During Wishart’s tour of the diversion, a local resident stopped to ask how to donate money to a legal defence fund for the farmers being pursued by the provincial government.

“A lot of people are upset by this,” said Wishart. “They didn’t want to put anyone at risk. They just wanted their voice heard.”

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