Man. gov’t ignoring economic importance of agriculture

It’s a long and exhausting debate for those directly involved.

Ranchers along Lake Manitoba in the province’s Interlake region are no longer able to use the pastures and haylands from which they earned parts of their livelihoods for generations.

Water and sucking mud have replaced crops and grasses.

Producers blame the provincial government because the Portage Diversion, as it’s called, channels water north from the Assiniboine River into the lake. The pumping began in the early 2000s, which is the same time that water began to creep onto farmland.

Then the flood of 2011 pushed water out over thousands of acres of pasture. This summer saw much the same.

However, the Manitoba government’s stand is clear. It states outright that paying for flooded pasture and hayland is not a policy goal. Besides, it says, flooding around Lake Manitoba has little to do with the province’s drainage activities.

Of course, ranchers in the area reject that claim. Some flooding was inevitable, they say, but the lake could not have crept across a level flood plain for 30 kilometres if the added water flowing in through the Portage Diversion had not pushed it.

New drainage channels are now planned, but they are designed to be effective only at high flood levels. They are not expected to help ease the seeping floods that exist now.

It’s a mess: a political one for government, a personal one for the ranchers who live there and a literal, physical mess for the sloppy, sodden land that remains.

There is also a credibility issue the Manitoba government will have to learn to deal with. It has a track record of not just ignoring rural and farming issues, but in some cases, of outright undermining key economic drivers of the rural economy.

For example, the province has issued a moratorium on new hog barn construction, even as older barns must be phased out of operation. That has caused supply shortages at the Maple Leaf slaughter plant in Brandon and reduction in the workforce.

There have also been questions over how long the Manitoba hog industry can remain price competitive with neighbouring provinces and U.S. states if Manitoba packers and farmers have higher regulatory costs.

Then there is the province’s steady finger pointing, singling out farmers as responsible for the high phosphorus levels in Lake Winnipeg. The truth is much more complicated, with a number of contributing factors involved, including effluent from Winnipeg itself.

It is a provincial government reveling in wedge politics, doing what it can to shore up its mainly urban voter base at the expense of those living in the country.

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach, to shift the debate. Instead of the constant parry and thrust of accusation and defence, the province could do everyone a kindness by looking for a path forward. Could it explore ways to ease the situation with a view on the longer-term outlook?

Dams, reservoirs and other flood control systems on the Assiniboine River have potential for much more than just flood control. They can provide drought protection and irrigation opportunities to produce higher value crops and can create new recreation sites in some instances.

Thankfully, there are signs the Manitoba government is doing just that. Feasibility studies have begun on building new flood control measures on the Assiniboine.

It’s early in the process and still a long way off, but it offers a glimmer of hope for producers.

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