Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Prairies battle record floods Add to ...

Water is spilling over the banks of Manitoba’s rivers each day. By the time it crests later this month, the flood will claim a grim toll in homes, roads and crops.

One of the worst on record, it would nonetheless be manageable as a one-off deluge. But that’s not the case.

Manitoba’s spring flood is a triple-whammy, the third consecutive year that water has washed away parts of the province. Alberta and Saskatchewan, too, are facing a year of floods after a year of downpour.

The fallout, as such, is being felt across the prairies. In Manitoba, two people have died along submerged highways, dozens of which were closed this week. Portions of the TransCanada Highway in Saskatchewan have been reduced to one precariously wet lane, while in Alberta a dam nearly burst earlier this week.

Prairie-wide, two hospitals have been evacuated and more than a dozen communities are in states of emergency. Last year, Alberta alone set aside $200-million for disaster relief claims.

The enduring price of such flooding, however, can be traced to the ground – and the canola, wheat and sunflowers of financially battered farmers such as Ken Jarvis, whose family has lived off a 4,500-acre plot near Gladstone, Man., for 125 years.

Mr. Jarvis, 56, hasn’t had a full crop since 2008. Typically, he’d be hurrying this month to start planting, particularly considering a third of his land was flooded by heavy rain last summer. But this year has so far afforded him no opportunity to rebound from a write-off year.

If it weren’t for his son, he’d pack it in.

“Looking out the window right here, right now, it’s just really, really high. It’s all water,” Mr. Jarvis said. “My son had just come home to farm. He was playing hockey, professional hockey, and he wants to farm. So we’ll hang in there a little bit longer. If it were just me, I’d be done.”

Well removed from the floodways and sandbag lines are the agricultural operations that are among the hardest hit. When flood waters sweep across a farm or ranch (where wet, muddy pastures slow cattle growth), they take livelihoods with them.

Each compounded failed year puts crop insurance further out of reach. Without it, a farm can’t operate.

“Crop insurance won’t insure us and we’ll be done,” with another bad year, said Perry Soper, 49, who keeps 4,000 acres of canola, wheat and beans in the Gladstone area. “It [2010] was probably the worst year I’ve ever had ... if it did it again this year, it’d be tough to go at it again next year. That’s for sure.”

If the ground dries out over the next month, farmers will be able to get a crop in without trouble. But Manitoba in particular is bracing for the worst in a flood that’s already more spread out than anyone expected.

“We’re dealing with flooding that’s of an unprecedented geographic scale,” Manitoba Transportation Minister Steve Ashton, who is in charge of emergency response, said this week. “The scope is very significant.”

The flooding is a function of the rain itself, which left groundwater levels high during the autumn freeze. Heavy snowfall all winter compounded the problem, leaving the prairie soil and waterways overwhelmed.

More rain and snow came to Alberta late this week. Ranchers and farmers are instead hoping for dry skies – if the prairies get even average precipitation over the next few weeks, it could be yet another lost year.

“Seemed like every storm that came through the last couple years has just come right through Medicine Hat here. Just pounded on us steady here for a couple years now, it seems like. And we had an extraordinary amount of snow, which is just unreal,” said Brad Betcker, 43, who farms 2,400 acres of canola, corn and hay near Medicine Hat, Alta. “We’re sweating it right now. The soil is soaked.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories