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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  • thundergun

    You bought land by a lake. Nature will retake what it wants when it wants. Cut your losses and move on. It’s all you can do until the water subsides in 10 or so years and even then the ground will be far to salty to farm. So move on.

    • Shawn Anderson

      It will be decades before you see this water go down………if it all of a sudden it turns dry……….. NOT 10 years!

    • richard

      the lake was 2 miles from the land for the last 80years

  • Mike

    Well thanks to the sask water corporations inability to do a damn thing the province of Saskatchewan now loses millions in revenue and these affected farming families lose even more in hope.
    If we just had a plan to move our water to the south where farmers can use it, a system paid for by the excess money hoarding railways and yes, I hate to be the Devils advocate here, but a tax on all of the heartless ditching farmers. The landscape of the prairies when seen overhead shows that it has the natural ability to hold this water but when thousands of farmers ditch every year to make their land more profitable this is what will happen. Yes Mother Nature is a big contributor here but no more than the farmer. I really can’t blame the farmer for wanting to increase their bottom line but they need to be held accountable.
    I am a farmer and have watched my dads land become inundated every year with the neighbors water. Roads being washed away, my taxes going up for infrastructure lost due to this issue and 80acres less to seed every year because some farmers just don’t care about what they can’t see. It’s time to face facts and the reality, look at the big picture here and rightfully, dutifully hold those accountable. These farmers that willfully take lives away from other farming families with no remorse so that THEIR bottom line looks better every year do not have the right to call themselves a farmer. These are the people which to be held accountable. We will see these waters recede just as fast as they rose! I pray that these affected families pull through this ordeal and I hope even more that these people who call themselves farmers and whom are a bunch of greedy heartless pricks are one day held accountable for my increase in taxes and my dads lost revenue for the last twenty or so years and….on yeah, destroying these families lives.!……By the way, we do not ditch!! Hang in there

  • The natural course of run off from big Quill Lake makes a bee line for the north end of Last Mountain Lake.
    Records show this to be undisputed.
    Back in the 1930’s farmers between Last Mountain and Big Quill began to farm the creek bed.
    Because a few farmers want to maintain farming a few acres the rest of the population must suffer these greedy farmers illegal position.
    What needs to happen is anyone affected by this greedy bunch and the government’s position of doing nothing constructive need only apply to a court of competent jurisdiction for relief.
    That would be closest Queen’s Bench and obtain an order to put the track hoes to work in restoring the natural run.

  • As far as I know Last Mountain Lake is more saline than Big Quill.
    There are fish in Big Quill now and have been there for a few years.

    • Shawn Anderson

      What Fish are talking about? Have you been out catching anything? I live in the area and have NOT heard of any fish…..Good one!!!

      • I saw some people fishing there last summer along the road they closed down between Quill Lake and Wynyard.
        The Cormorants were circling everywhere.
        Those birds only stick around if there are fish.

        • Shawn Anderson

          The only fish that are in Quill lake is brine shrimp.

          • Brine shrimp are not fish.
            People do not fish for Brine shrimp with spoons and jigs.

          • Angie Hilgenberg Erickson

            Because people throw spoons and jigs doesn’t mean there are fish in the lake. The logical argument here does not make sense. A=B, B=C, does not mean A=C.

  • If the people of Manitoba have a problem with natural run off coming from Saskatchewan then I suggest they look into Manitoba Hydro’s damning practices.
    They may just find their relief in their own back yard.

  • Shawn Anderson

    It is more than farmers that are effected. It is CP railway, highway 16 and 6 traffic, etc. Tell an ambulance to go around the rising waters when they have to take a patient to Saskatoon….. It is crazy to just sit back and do nothing when they can easily start to drain the lake to a manageable level.

  • I live in Lac Vert and 2 miles south/west of me the water run off ends up in Quill Lake.
    The water shed for Quill Lake is huge!
    Much bigger than most people realize or want to admit.

    • Shawn Anderson

      I farm near wynyard, I little closer than Lac Vert to Big Quill Lake. There is no doubt that people draining land is allot of the problem, but it is a combination of rain fall and the lack of planning on the part of RM’s in the areas of beaver dams, aging roads etc.

      • I think it is a result of some farmers who filled in the creek draining Quill Lake.
        I bet if I come down there with my drone and send it up I will find evidence from the air as to where the old creek bed is.
        I spotted the long ago abandoned and buried landing strip used to train pilots which has been farmed since the end of WWII near High River Alta.
        From 600 ft it sticks out like a sore thumb.
        From the ground no one knows its there.
        If you don’t pull the plug the tub always over flows.

  • Does anyone have old survey maps of the area from the 1920’s?

  • Joe Widdup

    In years past the Conservation and Development Branch would have stepped in to fix this problem. Our provincial government ended the C&D Branch to cut costs and dumped the responsibility to manage water onto SWA which later became the Water Security Agency. The least our government should be considering doing is breaking up the WSA and returning water drainage to the Department of Agriculture, if not the recreation of the C&D Branch in some form. The passive management of water resources by our government is grossly negligent. The next time you see your MLA, explain to them how disgusted you are with their water management policy. The only way the problem gets solved is through political action.

  • Political action is voting someone in to replace someone who is not working out.
    How is that going?
    I suggest the parties who have been harmed get some ink on court documents and send a real message to government.

    • Joe Widdup

      The MLAs for the affected area appear to be Kevin Phillips, Greg Brkich, and perhaps Donna Harpauer. As individual elected officials they are failing their constituents by not addressing this situation. You need individuals to step up to run against them for the SaskParty nomination. Given that the SaskParty is going to win the riding, the failing MLAs need to be replaced by the members of the SaskParty in the riding association. Buy a membership and get involved. Back another candidate. The MLAs will do something if they fear for their jobs.

  • It does not take a rocket scientist to see what has happened here.
    All it takes is a brief review of history.
    Back in the dirty 30’s some farmers filled in the creek draining big Quill.
    They began farming the now filled in creek.
    They are still farming or today.
    Has the time come to reopen the creek?


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