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Waiting for the flood: Manitoba farmers caught in agonizing routine

Members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry wait for sandbags to be unloaded as they shore up up a dike along an Assiniboine River near Poplar Point, Manitoba, May 12, 2011.

Fred Greenslade/Reuters/Fred Greenslade/Reuters

Doug Connery should be planting. And seeding. And harvesting. In a normal year, by this time, "the asparagus would be coming up like grass."

Instead, he and 30-odd employees have spent the week frantically preparing his farmland for a purposely caused flood that has yet to take place.

The Manitoba government again postponed plans to punch a hole through a dike at Hoop and Holler Bend, about 90 kilometres west of Winnipeg. The timing changed from Thursday morning to Thursday afternoon and then, late in the day, to Saturday.

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The province attributed those delays to its crews' success in shoring up dikes and increasing capacity on diversion channels trying to take pressure off the swollen Assiniboine River. The powerful waterway is experiencing once-in-300-years flooding that has thrown Manitoba into disarray and forced the province to bring in more than 1,300 troops to aid in flood prevention and mitigation.

But the uncertainty surrounding the "controlled release," a last-ditch attempt to prevent a massive flood by causing a miniature one, has rattled hundreds of residents and farmers in the 225 square kilometres around Hoop and Holler Bend.

The province says a maximum of 150 homes will be affected; officials from the rural municipalities in the area put that number as high as 500, depending on where the water goes once it's released.

"That's what's been so frustrating: There's been no talking ahead of time," Mr. Connery said. "That's not preparation. … There's still a lot of confusion."

Mr. Connery owns about 1,200 acres of farmland in the area, and lives less than half a kilometre from the site where crews are preparing to open a floodgate capable of releasing thousands of cubic feet of water a second.

He estimates as much as 70 per cent of that rural area is fertile farmland. And that controlled release, when it finally comes, could wipe out at least a year's work.

For Mr. Connery, "the best-case scenario I could have is 20 per cent gone."

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Worst case? One hundred per cent - about $5-million worth, he said, and that's not taking into account the perennial plants that would be flooded and impact harvests for years to come.

The province has promised to set up a special compensation program for those affected by the controlled release, covering costs, such as lost income, that disaster assistance doesn't usually include.

But it needs support from the federal government and that hasn't come yet.

"The Premier raised many of the issues we're looking at with the Prime Minister" when Stephen Harper toured flood-hit zones on Wednesday, Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said. But there's been no commitment to additional coverage.

"I would categorize the discussions yesterday as being very productive."

During his visit, Mr. Harper said he sees a need for more proactive measures to prevent flood-related damage, but made no promises when it came to extra compensation commitments.

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Mr. Connery, for his part, said he isn't optimistic.

"I don't think people are going to be compensated properly," he said. And even if the money is forthcoming months or years from now, "how do you bankroll yourself for that long?"

In the meantime, Mr. Connery said, they're hoping for the best. Asparagus-cutting starts at 7:30 a.m.; sandbagging continues apace.

"It's been Russian roulette. And where does it stop?"

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