Rising waters wash away land, farmers’ futures

Landowners propose an engineered lake drainage outlet to limit further losses

Spring has sprung on the Prairies and that means farmers have turned their thoughts to seeding, working the land and anticipating a bountiful harvest.

In normal times, Ron Laybourne would be among those farmers.

By early May, he should be knee deep in efforts to plant a crop on his farm near Leroy, Sask., a two hour drive east of Saskatoon.

But this year, Laybourne is knee deep in something else.

Since 2004, water levels in Big Quill Lake and Little Quill Lake have risen by nearly seven metres.

And as levels continue to rise, the shorelines of the lakes continue to expand outward.

At first, marginally productive crown land disappeared, followed by privately owned pastures and thousands of acres of grassland managed by local grazing co-ops.

More recently, the water has taken over houses, farmyards and productive cropland, some of it valued at $2,000 per acre just a few years ago.

Less than a decade earlier, some grain growers were buying land in the area at top dollar. Today, those same growers are making mortgage payments and paying interest charges on a soggy lake bottom.

In 2007, when Laybourne and his family moved to their new farmyard, between Quill Lake, Sask., and Leroy, Sask., the shores of Big Quill were at least three kilometres away.

This spring, the fields outside his farm house are completely submerged and the lake’s waves are literally lapping at his driveway.

“It’s depressing,” says Laybourne, a long-time grain grower who has begun to contemplate life after farming. “When you look around at all of this, it’s just depressing.”

Laybourne’s situation is not uncommon in the Quill Lake area.

Dozens of farmers in the region, perhaps hundreds, are facing similar circumstances in rural areas around Quill Lake, Wadena, Elfros, Mozart, Wynyard, Kandahar, Dafoe, Jansen. Leroy and Watson.

Across the region, farmers are watching helplessly as their farms and properties are washed away.

Kerry Holderness, a landowner and councillor in the Rural Municipality of Lakeside, says millions of dollars worth of assets — including cropland, pastures, farmyards, grain bins, roads, bridges and other municipal assets — are either at risk or are already sitting at the bottom of the lake.

And the water levels show no signs of receding.

This year, between Jan. 1 and May 1, water levels in the Quill Lakes rose by another half metre from 520.2 metres to nearly 520.65 metres.

For rural municipalities and private landowners, the situation is critical he says.

A recent flood mitigation report conducted by Golder Associates outlined the gravity of the situation.

“The floodwaters are … threatening linear infrastructure around the lake, including key transportation routes,” the January 2015 report stated.

Those routes include:

  • A Canadian Pacific Railway railbed between Lanigan and Wynyard, Sask., which has an estimated elevation of 520.8 metres.
  • A major provincial highway, Highway 6, whose shoulder elevation is listed at 520.74 metres.
  • Highway 35, a provincial highway with an elevation of 522 metres.
  • Municipal Grid Road No. 640 which runs north and south between Little Quill Lake and Big Quill Lake.

Despite efforts, the 640 grid is now within inches of being submerged.

The RM of Lakeside has already spent millions of dollars trying to salvage the road, the last link between the north and south sides of the Quill Lakes. Last year alone, the municipality hauled in $1 million worth of rock to build up the road and reinforce its shoulders, Holderness says.

As far as private property is concerned, it is hard to say how much farmland has been swallowed up.

By some estimates, private losses number in the range of 20,000 to 50,000 acres, not including pasture.

On his farm, Laybourne has lost about 1,300 acres in the past few years. His neighbour, Jason Friesen, a husband and father of three, has also lost 1,200 acres or more, some of it covered in water, some still above water but sitting on inaccessible islands.

“Those assets are lost,” says Friesen.

“You can’t drain it. You can’t sell it. Who’s going to buy it?”

For Laybourne, the loss of farmland is one thing. But the stress and uncertainty associated with deciding a future course of action is another.

He is trying to rent additional land to compensate for what’s been lost. But dry farmland is at a premium and rental rates are often prohibitive.

He will plant a crop this year, but his acreage is slowing dwindling and the stress involved with farming in a flood zone is taking its toll.

In early April, Laybourne’s farm machinery was perched on a knoll not far from the yard, temporarily safe from encroaching flood waters.

The road leading to yard is another matter. If the water keeps rising, Laybourne is not sure if the RM will try to keep it open or if they will finally let the lake take it over.

Provincial disaster assistance programs in Saskatchewan will help to pay for construction of a berm around the perimeter of his yard.

But as Laybourne’s Uncle Ray sees it, there is no use building a berm if all the land outside the berm is flooded as well.

“My wife an I are basically sitting on pins and needles because we’re watching the lake rise and we’re trying to decide what to do,” Laybourne says. “We’ve thought about moving to another yard but there’s not many spots available.

“We can’t just walk away from the homestead. Everything we’ve got is out there,” he adds.

Landowners in the Quill Lake area and municipal governments from the region have been lobbying federal and provincial governments for financial assistance and a permanent solution to the problem. But so far, a consensus hasn’t been reached.

The report by Golder Associates suggested a number of options, in-cluding diverting water before it reaches the lake, constructing a lake outlet and control structures, or allowing the lake levels to rise until their reach their natural spill point.

At 522 metres, the lakes will begin releasing their water into the Assin-iboine River Basin, a system that moves water east through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba through the cities of Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg.

But before that happens, the monetary costs associated with further property losses and additional infrastructure upgrades could approach $80 to $85 million.

The favoured option, at least among landowners, proposes an engineered lake drainage outlet and control structures.

That option would cost about $48 million and would limit further losses of land and yards as well as provincial and municipal infrastructure.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” Holderness concedes. “The people downstream don’t want our water but I think they’re starting to realize that they might get it anyway.”

“If we prepare for this and we manage the situation in a proper manner and put the necessary infrastructure in place, the flooding will stop, the situation will stabilize and we’ll be able to manage the outflows and minimize the impact downstream.”

“The sooner the decision is made to drain this lake, the less money that’s going to be wasted and thrown down a hole,” he adds. “This is not just a situation that concerns landowners anymore. There’s a lot of taxpayers money that’s already been wasted. And there could be a lot more.”

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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