In this July 2012 photo, rows of crop north of Alexander are under water after the Assiniboine River overflowed its banks near the Shellmouth Dam. Farmers in the area face a similar situation this year.
Farmers operating downstream from the Shellmouth Dam and reservoir have once again had their dreams of harvesting crops near the Assiniboine River washed away under a tidal wave of water from the west.
Stan Cochrane said it’s incompetence on the part of the provincial flood forecasters that will cost him 1,500 acres of farmland this summer.
"How can anyone that knows anything about forecasting water levels be so wrong?" Cochrane said.
Based on the March forecast, outflow from the dam was scaled back considerably to ensure there was enough water in the reservoir in the summer, according to a provincial official.
Throughout April, the reservoir was actually taking on more water than it was releasing at the dam.
Cochrane, who chairs the Assiniboine Valley Producers Association, said he opposed the reduction of outflows. He wanted to see the reservoir brought down further to allow more capacity to deal with potential runoff.
On April 23, the outflow at the dam was 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) while the inflow was more than 6,000 cfs. The water level was at 1395.7 feet.
Two days later, the outflow was still in the 50 cfs range despite inflows jumping to above 11,000 cfs, causing an approximate four-foot jump in the reservoir.
The next day, April 26, the outflows were increased to 716 cfs, but it was too late.
According to the government spokesperson, the watershed received more than 200 per cent of normal precipitation in April. The majority of the precipitation was rainfall on snowmelt, which has a very high runoff potential.
As of May 6, the inflow was still above 8,000 cfs, but outflow has been brought up to more than 5,000 cfs with an additional 800 cfs going over the spillway.
"Their predictions were so far off, it’s ridiculous and they need to find out where this water is coming from," Cochrane said. "But they don’t want to know where it is coming from because it doesn’t cost them any money. If they don’t pay us compensation, then they can flood the valley every year and not pay us a cent."
Wet years have cost farmers acres in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
In 2011, the provincial government proclaimed legislation — the Shellmouth Dam and Other Water Control Works Management and Compensation Act —which recognized their unique situation.
To date, producers have filed 90 applications for "artificial flood" with zero dollars being paid out, according to the provincial spokesperson.
Steve Topping, the province’s executive director of hydrologic forecasting and water management, said the dam was operated through the first three weeks of April using a forecast that predicted normal to below normal precipitation and low soil moisture level.
"(The forecasts) changed," he said Wednesday.
In hindsight, Topping said the dam could have been lower, but that it is impossible to reverse forecast.
"We would have went to the guidelines of 1,386 (feet), which would have been three-and-a-half feet lower, if I had known we were going over the spillway for sure," he said, adding he still believes the land would have been flooded either way.
There are also multiple stakeholders to consider.
Topping said input from producers in the Assiniboine Valley not just near the dam but near Carberry, where water is used for irrigation in the potato industry, are factored in.
Water levels are also considered for drinking in Brandon and Winnipeg, and other groups want to see water held at the reservoir for fishing and recreation purposes.
It’s those needs that determine how the dam is run, not necessarily how Topping believes it should be operated.
"Another reason the outflows weren’t increased is because ice was still persistent on the river," he said. "It will cause significant ice jamming downstream."
In 2011, those ice jams flooded homes near Brandon.
"We couldn’t control the flows and ice jamming was caused and flooded out some homes in the RM of Cornwallis," Topping said. "You’re managing a reservoir for not just below the reservoir but points downstream where other tributaries come in."
As for the legislation, Topping said it pays for loss of farmland for unnatural or regulated flooding.
"It doesn’t cover all natural flooding costs and this flood is primarily a natural flood," he said.
Essentially the only way for "artifical flooding" to occur is if outflow exceeds inflow and that outflow causes flooding.
However, by simply stopping the release of water and allowing it to run freely over the spillway — meaning inflows are equal to outflows — it wouldn’t qualify as artificial flooding, so the province wouldn’t pay compensation.
And that’s what angers Cochrane.
"The program was designed not to pay," he said.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 8, 2014