Drenched again: South inundated, but it could have been worse

The damage to infrastructure will take time to repair, and the 
effects on many farms and ranches will be long lasting

Cecilie and Duncan Fleming have given up repairing corrals and fencing on their low-lying land because 100-year floods are “coming every eight years.”
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The night Willow Creek flooded was a sleepless one for Cecilie Fleming and husband Duncan.

Every hour, the couple slogged through the rain and the mud in their yard just east of the creek and used an electric fence post to measure the rise of the rapidly swelling torrent of water.

Two feet became four feet. Four became eight.

As the creek rose higher and higher toward where their house sits on a hill overlooking the water, Fleming turned to her husband and said, “Oh shit, what if this is the big one?”

“It was very intense,” said Fleming, a Black Angus seedstock producer west of Granum. “At midnight when you went out there, it almost looked like fake rain. The sleepy little creeks that flow were raging rivers.”

The creek began to breach its banks in the early afternoon of June 17, but by then, their 100-head herd had already been moved to higher ground. The Flemings, after all, are no strangers to flooding.

“They call them the 100-year floods, but they’re coming every eight years,” she said. “After last year’s flood, we made a decision not to rebuild down there. The infrastructure has been damaged so many times, we just quit putting things in flood’s way.”

Last year’s flooding, which devastated the town of High River, destroyed the Flemings’ corrals and cross-fencing, but this year’s flood was worse, she said.

“I think the localized rain intensity, overland flooding, and pooling on the land is greater this year than it was last year,” said Fleming of the estimated seven inches of rain they got.

“We’ve got roads just west of here that are still under water. All through the municipalities, there are roads cut, culverts washed out, bridges that may be weakened.”

Saving grace

Across the south, some are wearily facing yet more rebuilding, while others are counting their blessings.

A state of emergency was declared in Lethbridge County on June 17, when the Oldman River was forecast to peak at a monstrous 4,500 cubic metres per second. It turned out to be 2,100.

“We were significantly saved there,” said Reeve Lorne Hickey.

Still Hickey, a grain producer who lives in a hilly area, expects to have water on his land for the rest of the summer.

The impact varies from place to place. The southern part of the county got more rain, but all along Highway 2 from Calgary to Lethbridge, west to the Rockies, and from High River south to the border was badly hit.

“Our biggest problem was the overland flooding,” said Hickey. “The drainage systems in this area simply can’t handle that volume of water. Some places had between four to 8-1/2 inches of rain.”

A wet spring meant the ground soil was already saturated and boosted run-off.

“One saving grace, certainly for the river, was that the rain didn’t come down in the mountains like they predicted,” said Hickey. “It came down in the form of snow instead of rain, so we’re lucky. But we still have a lot of snow to melt. Will we be out of the woodwork yet? I don’t think so.”

The water was slowly receding by the end of June, but so many fields had standing water for so long, there will be significant crop damage, said Brad Andres, director of disaster planning with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“It depends on each field, how it’s laid out and how much water they have,” he said.

Feedlot nightmare

The number of confined feeding operations in the region was also a major concern — from both an animal and human health standpoint. Feedlots and large ranches with lots of cows in pens were a nightmare of water and mud.

“The water just had no place to go,” said Andres.

Worse, because of current high prices, many pens were full.

“The water sits in the pens and the animals are still walking through it,” he said. “The animals will actually punch through the base of the pen and destroy the bottom of the pen so it doesn’t hold the manure water any more.”

Some operations could see hundreds of thousands of dollars of such damage, he said.

Animals standing in water will have a higher risk of contamination from their own manure, and will likely be drinking dirty water. Feed contamination will be another problem, and so will the effect on the environment.

“Even if the water is run-off water from the field, it’s going to carry some contamination,” said Andres.

Producers are pumping water out of their pens, but there are restrictions about who can pump and at what time. Those with licensed confined feeding operations are working with the Natural Resources Conservation Board to figure out how to remove excess moisture appropriately.

“They’ve got to manage the water in the pens, just like they manage the manure during the year.” But not everyone can pump at the same time.

“That just adds more water to the ditches or the fields, which flows somewhere else,” said Andres.

Better than drought

Just down the road from the Flemings, Jodi and Blaine Dunlop were worrying about the flood’s toll on their crops on their mixed grain and cattle operation.

“Just about every field has a huge lake in it right now,” Jodi Dunlop said in an interview in late June.

After the flooding, the couple saw some yellowing in their fields, and while crops in the drier areas were “looking better,” the already narrow window for spraying was rapidly closing, with most fields still too wet to spray.

“You worry about your yield because you’re not able to get your weeds out,” she said.

Gary Stanford was facing the same problem on his grain farm near Magrath.

“On our land, 10 per cent probably has a little water sitting on it,” he said at the time. “Ninety per cent of it, we’re hoping we can spray now if it dries up a little. But there will be a few wet spots where we won’t be able to.

“We’re trying to get in on the land, but we can’t. We’d be stuck.”

The implications for his farm are far reaching — any delay in spraying ramps up weed pressure through summer, creating “a weed problem for next year really bad.” Come harvest time, the weeds could also be “a real challenge to get swathed,” and Stanford said he’s sure to see increased dockage on his crops when it comes time to deliver them.

The flooding also stunted his crops, setting them a week or two behind.

“That could be a concern this year if we don’t start getting some 30° days to get the crop maturing,” he said.

Even so, Stanford expects to see only a small yield loss on his farm.

“In this climate down here, we need moisture. As long as the water will run off, it seems like it doesn’t hurt the crop too bad,” he said.

“I think we’ll have an average crop. I don’t think we’ll have a bumper crop.”

And as far as he’s concerned, flooding beats a drought.

“In the 1980s, we couldn’t get it to rain at all for 10 years, and we thought, ‘Will it ever rain again?’ And now the last few years, we’re getting more rain than we ever thought we’d see.

“It is a challenge, but in the ’80s, when you hardly had a crop to harvest, I’d rather have the problems we have now.”

Your health

People whose yards have been flooded need to test their water wells — both for the house and for livestock. They should also avoid eating from flooded gardens, which could be contaminated.

“If the water came from the barnyard, you have to watch for contamination in the garden, things like E. coli and salmonella,” said Andres.

Anyone who suffered flood damages needs to report them to their county, which will assemble a summary report for the provincial government.

“The more information we have, the better case we have to get some disaster funding,” said Hickey.

Take pictures, draw maps, and identify all damages as this information will be necessary for both crop insurance and for understanding any potential animal health problems that could develop, said Andres.

“There’s always potential during these big events for government financial assistance, but it will be a month or two down the road, and you need to be able to prove everything,” he said.

The province’s website also carries additional information about flood responses.

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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