KEITH BORKOWSKY/BRANDON SUN
Gary Kochanowski shows his flooded-out farmland in the Assiniboine River valley near Shellmouth, just south of the Shellmouth Dam. He blames chronic man-made flooding issues for more than $150,000 worth of crop loss.
SHELLMOUTH — After two years of watching his land flood without being able to plant his first crop in the Assiniboine River valley, Tristan Kochanowski finally thought he caught a break.
The Shellmouth Reservoir’s spillway remains in use in August as high water drains into the Assiniboine River. Farmers blame the operation of this water control structure as the cause of flooding downstream. (KEITH BORKOWSKY/BRANDON SUN)
A delegation of municipal and provincial politicians attempt to cross the Shell River at a bridge that could be permanently flooded out if leaf gates are added to the Shellmouth Dam's flood control structures. (KEITH BORKOWSKY/BRANDON SUN)
His land was dry and the canola he planted looked pretty good as it emerged from the ground. Then, after spraying his land, water from the Assiniboine River rose and swallowed everything up.
And with it went his hopes of making a profit.
"Not much keeps me going anymore, to be honest. It’s getting pretty disheartening and I don’t know what to do next spring," the 25-year-old said. "Dad thinks we should be spraying it out and trying again, but I’m getting pretty frustrated about it. It’s sure not pushing me towards farming, that’s for sure."
The 100 acres that he bought three years ago, just south of the Shellmouth Dam, has not made him a dime to this point. With high hopes, he cleared the land of bulrushes, flood debris, logs and trees, and planted canola, believing the high commodity prices could give him enough profit after harvest to wash the bad years from his memory. Instead, his morale was flushed.
"It’s coming up and it’s pretty frustrating to see that much money disappearing," Kochanowski said. "The potential profit alone would have been quite a lot and even just losing the inputs (seed, farm chemicals, etc.) is substantial. It could have been close to $100,000. This was going to be a very important year. I was thinking I could finally make something off of it and get some cash flow coming in."
His father Gary also suffered major crop losses in the valley this year, which he estimated to be $150,000 just on his farm alone.
"We had seeded and sprayed in crop and put in 200-some pounds of fertilizer and this is the one field we can get to out of 350 acres, so this gives you an idea this is a major expense," the elder Kochanowski told a group of opposition provincial politicians who toured the area on a fact-finding trip along the Assiniboine River on Thursday. "It’s pretty tough to come back from that. It doesn’t look good. There needs to be changes from what we’re hearing out of Winnipeg because we’re hearing the same thing over and over again."
Gary Kochanowski said unlike 2011, there wasn’t as much snow to melt, so he can’t figure out how the flooding can be considered anything but artificial flooding. And under the Shellmouth Dam and Other Water Control Works Management and Compensation Act, those affected by the damage caused by artificial flooding are to be compensated. To date, the producers said they can’t get phone calls returned, there are no cheques in the mail and their frustration is rising.
To get through the last two years on his own, the younger Kochanowski secured land on higher ground out of the valley and has farmed that. However, to make ends meet, he has taken a job at a welding shop. Lately, there have been more days that he has thought about giving up on the farm and focussing on another career. Alvin Zimmer, the Reeve for the RM of Shellmouth-Boulton could hardly blame him for doing just that.
"I believe this land has to be bought up (by the Crown)," Zimmer said. "You need to have that money for that land and then you take your chances. They need to pay you a fair price for that land and then rent it back to you."
Zimmer said that was the first thing former premier Gary Filmon, a former engineer, said to him after surveying the Shellmouth situation in 1995. However at that point, producers balked at selling the land. After several floods, they have come to the same conclusion Filmon reached more than a decade ago, Zimmer said.
That would make sense to the Kochanowskis, when considering the damaged acres in the valley will have millions of dollars in lost crops. While crop insurance does pay, those with land outside and inside the valley can suffer when the valley is not considered separately from the other land owned by the farmer.
"How is Manitoba ever going to be a province if you continue like this? If you took this across all the taxpayers, there’s hundreds of millions that are gone," Gary Kochanowski said. "That’s income that’s gone."
Tristan Kochanowski said he realizes there are other factors that come into play with the Shellmouth Reservoir. If the lake level drops too much, fish die and the tourism industry is affected. But he wants to see better water management strategies implemented by the provincial government, so that the higher flows can happen during winter months when crops aren’t affected.
"The problem is they are so worried about reaching their summer level that they start holding back water much too soon," Kochanowski said. "They don’t seem to take into account that it rains in the spring and more water comes. Then they let some out and hold what they can and then it’s too late."
Zimmer said there are plans to add leaf gates to the spillway at the Shellmouth Dam that would enable the lake to handle levels up to six feet higher than the current flood stage of 1408.5 feet above sea level. As of Friday, the lake level was 1409.6 feet above sea level and even with a controlled release of 950 cubic feet per second (cfs), there was 659 cfs rushing through the spillway. According to Manitoba Water Stewardship’s flood sheets, spillway flow peaked at 7,700 cfs on June 30.
Given the amount of water already in the system, Zimmer said he’s not optimistic that leaf gates on the spillway will keep water off land. Improved water management plans up and down stream are a better solution, he says.
Though it would depend on the design of the leaf gate, a sudden release of six feet of water from the Shellmouth Dam would affect Brandon, Zimmer said, especially if it had happened last year when super sandbags held back approximately 12 feet of water on 18th St. near the Corral Centre.
Tristan Kochanowski said he just wants to be treated fairly and does not feel that has been the case.
"I’d want to see some accountability when they screw up," Kochanowski said. "Everybody in life, when they mess up, they have to be accountable. I think there should be accountability and compensation for when they mess up. If I’ve got nothing coming in financially and it’s beyond my control, they should be giving something."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 18, 2012