Weathering the storm
Frustration as flooding wipes out crops for second year in a row
Barley crops flooded, canola fields glinting under the sun but concealing several inches of water, pasture swamped, broken river banks, marshy verges, partially submerged roads …
The landscape with its patchwork of water brings to mind rice paddy fields in southeast Asia, although this is very much an Albertan story and nothing is growing now on the soil. Before you is an agricultural wasteland, where a major damage assessment needs to be carried out and eventually new seeds planted.
It is a sight Barrhead farmers like Leonard Schmidt are sick to death of seeing. After all, he saw much the same last July.
In 2011 he believed action had been taken to fortify the dikes and prevent the rain-swollen Paddle River spilling into his farmland and surrounding areas.
Last Monday’s thunderstorm proved him wrong as floodwater swamped his fields again, destroying crops he grows to feed his cattle in the winter. Nearby farmers Joe Olson and Larry Patterson were also hit.
“I’m not going to just accept this,” Schmidt said last Thursday. “Not this time. People are going to hear from me and I want some answers.
“Last year they said they would fix the problem. Well in my opinion the work that was done was not very satisfactory.”
One person he wants to contact is Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Maureen Kubinec, for he believes the provincial government owes farmers an explanation. Compensation will also inevitably be sought.
Several issues concern Schmidt:
• He says the dikes in his area need to be higher to regulate water levels;
• After last year’s disaster, effective anti-flooding work was carried out on the river system just two miles south of his farm. Why not in his area?
• The Paddle River Dam, near to Mayerthorpe in Lac Ste. Anne County, was not shut down until noon on Tuesday, he says. Why was it not shut earlier?
• He believes the whole area should have been better landscaped.
Schmidt reckons this year he has lost about 200 acres of barley crops for cattle feed. Another 50 acres of pasture – from where he had to remove cows on Tuesday afternoon – have also been ruined.
Other farmers have been hit just as hard. For instance, a nearby canola field belonging to Olson was swamped by four to six inches of water, said Schmidt.
Meanwhile, rainwater has settled in one of Patterson’s fields.
“The worst thing about the river system from the dam downstream is that if the water goes over the dikes it stays nearly for ever,” said Schmidt. “You almost have to wait until it evaporates.”
Schmidt has been farming in Barrhead County since 1965. He loves living here: the soil is fertile and the setting beautiful.
Over the years he has seen changes in rural life, one being the clearing of land which eased the movement of water from rain and flooding.
To protect farmland, Schmidt was involved in discussions which led to the construction of a dam in the 1980s. For many years the dam proved very effective, he said.
Then last year 800,000 hectares of farmland were submerged in water, the county’s worst disaster of this kind in 25 years. Last week’s storm rekindled those dreadful memories.
“Over these last two years the river system has been tested as never before because of the amount of rain,” Schmidt said.
A few minutes’ drive from Schmidt’s house is Liz Corbett’s farm.
The old Paddle bed runs through her property, and at times last week it looked as though the past had reasserted itself as water patches appeared in the fields.
Corbett said floodwater coming from Sangudo and Connor Creek rushed across her land on Tuesday morning, damaging pasture and hay land.
She reckons reseeding alone will cost $1,500, excluding other expenses like diesel.
“It’s not as bad as last year, but it has been getting there,” she said.
Corbett said improvements on the river system had been carried out in June. Other work had to be abandoned because of the flooding.
Several miles away in the Mosside area, Dale Dusza has been tending to the land for 43 years, growing grain and herding cattle.
Last week he was on a tractor hauling hay bales when the water seemed to spring up from underground. He had to abandon the vehicle on a hill and make his way back to safety.
In amazement he watched water from the Little Paddle jumping, measuring the levels between a little willow and a big willow from a bank near his house.
Last Thursday afternoon, when The Leader visited Dusza, thick bands of water separated his property from the hill where he had left the tractor and bales of hay.
Normally he could walk across the ground towards the hill, now the water was way too deep, he said.
It was a similar scene last year. After applying for flood loss compensation for 90 acres, he received $30 an acre from the province, he said.
“$2,700 – that was a joke,” he said. “The crop and the grain alone cost me $5,000.”
Dusza, who owns three and a half quarters, will be putting in a similar compensation claim this year for the loss of hay and grain.
“At least the cows are okay in the fields,” he laughed. “They have lots of drinking water.”
Marvin Brade is the Barrhead County councillor for the southwest corner of the county, which includes the farms of Schmidt, Olson and Patterson.
After inspecting the fields of cereal grain canola, hay and pasture, he reported a lot of damage.
“The problem is the dykes are too low,” he said. “The water is spilling over, that’s the biggest problem.”
Brade said the provincial government was responsible for the water. After last year’s flooding, steps were taken to fix the problem, but obviously they did not work.
“They put a band-aid on it,” Brade said. “They need to rectify the dikes. Not much needs to be added on, I would say maybe half a foot.
“The farmers would know how to do it, but they have never been asked about it.”
Brade said pressure had to be exerted on the province, since farmers’ livelihoods were being affected.
“It doesn’t matter whether crops are under one foot or four feet of water,” he said. “The water will kill them. Once the crop dies it turns yellow, then brown and begins to deteriorate.”
Brade said one of the challenges facing farmers was that there is no provision in crop insurance that covers flooding.
“That’s a problem for those who have been hit,” he said. “They have now taken two hits in a row.”
Brade said his own farm had not been affected because it was on high enough ground.
A flood watch issued by Environment Alberta for the Paddle River and its tributaries downstream of Paddle Dam was still in effect last Thursday.
The Little Paddle River and the Paddle Dam inflows had peaked and were currently falling, said Environment Canada, while the Athabasca River at Fort Assiniboine was expected to peak later on Thursday evening.
Last Wednesday, Chief Administration Officer Martin Taylor said the Town had been keeping an eye on the Paddle River.
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