Farmers in Manitoba spill zone to be compensated

Farmers flooded by a controlled spill to prevent an uncontrolled blowout of Assiniboine River dikes will be compensated “fairly and swiftly and comprehensively,” according to Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers.

“It’s a special case and it will be a special compensation package that we come forward with,” Struthers said in an interview Wednesday. “We need to meet the needs of individual farmers that are impacted by the water. So what we really have to do is to hook people that are impacted with our staff to identify what those needs are and what those costs are and then we can respond from there.”

Normally flood compensation comes through the federal-provincial Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) program. Compensation under the program is capped at $200,000 per claim and only covers uninsurable losses to property, not lost income.

People, including farmers, affected by the controlled spill, will have their own special program that includes the “potential impacts on income,” Emergency Measures Organization minister Steve Ashton told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.

“The best way to describe it is comprehensive coverage of the real losses they’re going to deal with.”

The Manitoba government hopes the special program will be cost-shared with the federal government, he said.

“The right thing”

Premier Greg Selinger discussed the idea Wednesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper while the two leaders toured the flood area.

“When it comes to compensation I can tell you I don’t think we spent more than one minute in any of the discussions here talking about what it might cost,” Ashton said. “It’s the right thing to do and we’re going to do it.”

Portage la Prairie-area vegetable farmer Doug Connery of Connery’s Riverdale Farms says the controlled spill will delay planting and cost him and three other vegetable growers $10 million in lost farm gate revenue. And that could drive him of business, he said.

The spill shouldn’t occur on some of Manitoba’s most productive and expense farmland, Connery said. But if it does farmers must be fully compensated, he said.

Struthers met with Connery Tuesday and said he got the message.

“We know there are farmers like Doug who are in special circumstances and will need more than just that (DFA) support,” Struthers said. “I conveyed that message to Doug.”

Some people in the controlled flood zone are angry, claiming they’re being “sacrificed” to save others downstream from the Hoop and Holler Bend on PR 331 just southeast of Portage la Prairie where the controlled spill will occur.

However, Ashton stressed that if the overtaxed Assiniboine dikes break it will likely occur in the same spot. Then 15,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) would flood 850 homes, including in communities such as Sanford, Starbuck and La Salle, along with 500 square kilometres of farmland.

The controlled spill will release about 4,000 cfs and affect 150 homes and 225 square km, according to Manitoba government estimates.

“So we’re not looking at a release of water into an area that would not have otherwise been impacted,” Ashton said. “The risk would’ve been a 15,000 cfs release in that area — a far greater impact, not only in that area, but potentially in other areas in and around the Assiniboine both north and south.”

The timing of the controlled spill has been postponed several times, giving those in the water’s path more time to protect their property, but Ashton said it’s not a question of if water will be released but when given the pressure Assiniboine River dikes are under and the Portage diversion is over capacity.

“Able to react”

A weir, built with rock riprap to prevent erosion, is in place near the oxbow at Hoop and Holler Bend. The oxbow acts as a reservoir so the strong current in the river will not affect the water being released. The water, which will be 18 inches high when leaves the weir, will flow slowly, said Steve Topping, Manitoba Water Stewardship’s executive director of regulatory and operational services.

“Equipment will be stationed there 24 hours a day,” he said. “It will be well lit at night. We will be able to react very quickly to any problem downstream…”

The water flow can be increased, slowed or shut off if necessary, he said.

In the meantime, an action team involving the army, Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation and EMO, is rushing downstream ahead of the water to try and protect homes in the water’s way.

“We don’t have a lot of time but we have a lot of resources,” Ashton said. “I wouldn’t underestimate how much having 1,000 armed forces personnel will have in allowing us to do something that might take weeks (normally) in a matter of days.”

The Manitoba government doesn’t know how quickly floodwaters will reach the eastern edge of the projected flood zone or how deep it will be. It could take several days, Topping said. All the mile roads will act as dikes. Water will spread slowly across the landscape like syrup across a slightly tilted waffle. Water will fill ditches, then go over the road to fill the next square mile cell and so on.

Some in the flood zone are frustrated because of the lack of information. Ashton said since this is an unprecedented event, the government doesn’t have all the answers. Flood-fighters, in many cases, will rely on local knowledge.

In general homes should be protected to two feet above the level of the nearby roads, Topping said.

— Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man.

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