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Farmers still waiting for flooding cash

Told they must sign forms waiving their right to sue

Rows of crops near Brandon are left underwater after the Assiniboine River breached its banks in 2011.

CHARLES TWEED / BRANDON SUN FILES Enlarge Image

Rows of crops near Brandon are left underwater after the Assiniboine River breached its banks in 2011.

Three years after their lands were artificially flooded due to the operation of the Shellmouth reservoir, about six dozen western Manitoba farmers are still awaiting payment from the province.

And they're accusing the government of using intimidation tactics, requiring they sign forms waiving their right to sue before their claims are processed.

The province says there is no intimidation. It just wants farmers to know that under provincial law the farmers can't receive assistance from certain programs and then sue the government.

"I think it's an absolute disgrace," said Virden farmer Keith Pearn, of the way he and his fellow producers have been treated.

Steve Ashton, minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Organization, which is administering the compensation program designed especially for farmers living downstream of the reservoir, admitted this week it will still be months before farmers are paid.

He once promised payments would go out by spring 2013.

Technical issues relating to determining how much flooding would have occurred naturally in the area and how much occurred because of the regulation of the dam have "proved to be more complex than we anticipated," Ashton said.

When farmers do finally get paid -- the government's new estimate is this will occur by the end of August -- it's unclear how much they stand to gain.

The government would not say how much it expects the program to cost. Ashton said the amount is open-ended and depends on the results of what has been an already laborious application process that involves provincial staff visiting each producer. The province said it also did extensive technical studies to determine whether artificial flooding had occurred and where it occurred.

Ashton said there were only "three to five days" of artificial flooding in the region in both 2011 and 2012 that can be attributed to the operation of the dam. (The government will compensate farmers for both years at the same time.)

The Shellmouth reservoir holds back water to prevent flooding to communities along the Assiniboine River as far east as Winnipeg. When the river is low, water is released from the dam for use by towns and irrigators.

Stan Cochrane, who farms at Oak Lake, 50 kilometres west of Brandon, said Wednesday farmers are not expecting a lot from the program.

He said ad hoc payments made to farmers in the past were more effective.

He said he and several other producers are reluctant to sign the waivers before they know how much the program might pay out. The province says the purpose of the "acknowledgement and consent form" is simply to apprise farmers they can't both collect program money and sue. It does not prevent them from suing if they don't like what's offered. But the farmers aren't so sure.

The NDP government introduced legislation in 2006 requiring farmers operating downstream of the Shellmouth dam and reservoir be compensated for losses due to artificial flooding. The act did not come into force until early 2011.

It took the government until November 2012 to announce artificial flooding had indeed occurred in the area in both 2011 and 2012, triggering a compensation payment.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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