Beef producers in flood-prone areas of Manitoba are looking forward to the construction of new outlet channels that should help to prevent a repeat of the devastating floods of 2011 and 2014, which caused mass evacuations of people and livestock, affected millions of hectares of farmland and cost billions of dollars in compensation.
At a June news conference at St. Laurent, Man., the Government of Canada and the Province of Manitoba announced combined funding of $540 million towards flood protection projects for Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin.
The federal government is providing $247.5 million for the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin Outlet Channels Project, under the recently launched Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. Manitoba will provide matching funds in the amount of $247.5 million, plus an additional $45 million in order to complete the project.
“These are major flood management projects and will be as essential as the Red River Floodway and the Portage Diversion in provincial flood-fighting efforts,” said Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler. “Manitoba is a collection point of major watersheds that start outside of the province but can result in widespread flooding, devastation, costly cleanup and years of restoration.”
In a phone interview, Manitoba Beef Producer (MBP) past president Ben Fox said the organization is pleased with the commitment of the Manitoba and Canadian governments to move forward with the project. “I think that once we have these outlet channels in place, it will offer those producers most affected by these weather events some stability and relief in knowing that no matter what comes at them they are still going to be safe, and they will produce on the acres that they have been managing already,” said Fox.
Floods have lingering effects
Tom Teichrob, who raises cattle on the west side of Lake Manitoba in the Langruth area, was also pleased at the announcement. Teichrob had to evacuate his cattle during the flood of 2011 when flood waters completely inundated his farm. Another major flood in 2014 took out the feed production acres the farm had just reclaimed and obliterated much of the infrastructure, such as fences and corrals, replaced from the previous flood.
“I think this announcement is extremely important for all of Manitoba and the rest of Canada,” says Teichrob. “When you look at personal losses (of producers), that is one story, but when you multiply that by the amount of producers, businesses and homeowners who were impacted around the lake and around the province, and the compensation dollars, lost infrastructure that will never be replaced and people who have moved away and the lost tax revenue, there is a massive price tab that has been handed down to the rest of Canadians. Taxpayers are now investing in infrastructure that they are all capturing the value from.”
Hard to have confidence
A lot of the fragile native grassland closest to the lake has never recovered on Art Jonasson’s farm near Volgar on the east side of Lake Manitoba, and as a result he’s had to downsize.
“Our land isn’t able to carry the animals that it did before,” says Jonasson. “The 2011 flood was devastating to us, but the 2014 flood was devastating to our grasses because there was a seed bank there that, after two years, had started to come back. Then it flooded again and it’s taken a long time for those grasses to recover because I don’t think there was any seed bank left.”
The Jonassons were dependent on that land for half their feed and they finally got fed up with running all over the province to find hay or pasture, so in 2015 they made the decision to sell half their cows. Jonasson admits that for them it wasn’t a hard decision because they are getting closer to retirement, but for some younger producers in the area the ongoing affects of the floods meant lost opportunities. “One young guy told us that he lost out on a lot of years of expansion when the cattle prices were good,” he says.
But by far the biggest impact of any flood is shaken confidence. “Every time a flood happens it shakes your confidence about going forward,” says Jonasson. “Should we do renovations or put in a pile of work to try to get this land back to being able to support our cow herd if it’s going to flood again in another three or four years? A lot of farms have changed hands, some are not nearly as productive as they were and some people have just left.”
The proposed outlet channel will go a long way to restoring the confidence of people who live and make a living in the region, he adds. “If they build that extra outlet, the rules of operation of it sound very promising. It’s the first time they’re taking into consideration the level of Lake Manitoba in the operating of any of the control structures,” says Jonasson.
Channel will provide better water management
During times of flooding and high-water levels on Lake Manitoba, the new outlet channel will carry water directly from Lake Manitoba to Lake St. Martin and then on to Lake Winnipeg.
The project consists of building two approximately 23-kilometre-long diversion channels: the Lake Manitoba Outlet Channel will run north from Watchorn Bay on Lake Manitoba to Birch Bay on Lake St. Martin; the Lake St. Martin Outlet Channel will run northeast from Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg south of Willow Point. The project also involves building two bridges and water control structures, a 24-kilovolt distribution line, and adjusting surrounding highway infrastructure
The channels will allow Manitoba to regulate lake levels and provide flood protection to individuals, businesses, communities and farmland around Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. Once completed, this work will significantly enhance the region’s ability to regulate water levels on both lakes and protect local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities from flooding.
The flip side
Producers and landowners on the north side of Lake Manitoba, where the outlet channels will be built, are looking at things a little differently. Many have expressed concern about the possible disruption to their operations as well as the level of compensation that will be offered for expropriated land.
In the case of Lawrence and Rose Bittner, the proposed outlet channel will cut right through the home quarter of their farm near Steep Rock, Man., destroying the family home where they have raised three sons and two granddaughters.
“We know it has to happen because we know how horrible it was in 2011,” says Rose. “We are at the point in our lives where we are thinking of retirement, but it’s heartbreaking as far as our home is concerned because it feels as if our life’s work is being ripped apart.”
The Bittners first found out about the proposed channel route about three years ago and feel like they have been in limbo ever since. With the announcement of the federal funding they hope to get some certainty about what is going to happen so they can move forward with finding a new home, and hope that they will be compensated fairly.
They are not alone in that sentiment. Teichrob, who is also the current MBP president, says, “MBP has reached out to the province with these concerns and to ensure that we are recognizing what these producers are doing again for the greater good and ensuring that they are compensated fairly for whatever it is they are giving up on their operation,” says.
“I hope (the producers affected by the proposed channel construction) get treated fairly and that they get their true value, because they are my neighbours too and I know most of them,” says Jonasson. “The laws around expropriation do protect the farmer and there is an appeal process if they don’t feel they are getting fairly treated.”
Open houses were held around Manitoba in June to discuss the proposed construction plans and plans and an access road to the Lake St. Martin construction area is already being built. The remainder of construction could start as soon as fall 2019.