For more than 12 years, farmers around east-central Saskatchewan's Quill Lakes have watched the waters rise and their profits fall from flooding that shows no signs of stopping. And as nature takes its toll on the bottom line, their very way of life is under threat, too.
The Quill Lakes – three lakes connected by creeks – have merged and risen by more than seven metres since 2005, engulfing more than 40,000 acres of private farmland and 56,000 acres of Crown land, estimates Kerry Holderness, chair of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association. At first, the rise was attributed to heavy rainfalls – specifically in 2011 and 2014. But Mr. Holderness said it's now recognized that the Quill Lakes are in what's called a "wet cycle" and could remain at this level for between 10 and 25 years.
Last year alone, the watershed group reported that farmers lost a combined $10.9-million of profit from crops lost to the floodwaters. And the losses will continue to mount. The reality is that many who farmed in that area will never see their land again, and even if they do, they will never get to farm it: The high saline content of the water, caused by high evaporation levels that leave the water concentrated in dissolved salts and minerals, will render the land unusable for long after the water recedes.
Local farmer Gordon Friesen estimates up to 100 farming families have already been affected and a further 40,000 acres are under threat. One of the more dramatic cases of loss along the shores of the Quill Lakes is taking place on the Zerbin family's farm. It was once a thriving century farm, but now a massive berm that has been eroding heavily since last winter is the only thing separating the property's buildings – including Cynthia and Garth's Zerbin's home – from the ever-rising water.
This spring, the family, who raise cattle in addition to growing crops such as flax, wheat, barley, canola, lentils and oats, exhausted its effort to keep the farm from ending up afloat and decided to leave the property behind. The Zerbins have hauled a number of buildings, including their son Garnet's house, a few kilometres away to an area that is safe from the flooding. Cynthia and Garth will be leaving their house behind and joining Garnet in a mobile home in the new property this fall. Ms. Zerbin said it is tough to leave behind the memories they made in a home that was built by her husband's grandparents, and a farm that's been in his family since 1923.
"As each piece moved, it was like a little piece of you is going over there already. So what's left here, it's not going to be as hard to leave behind but the house is a home and you don't want to see that end," she said.
The Zerbins have lost 3,200 acres of land – a mixture of cultivated and pasture land – to flooding, which has led to about $2-million lost through flood-mitigation efforts and land that is now underwater, Garnet estimates.
The toll on property values is causing even more grief for farmers who want to set up elsewhere: Paid farmland that goes underwater cannot be borrowed against or used for security to buy new land, said Garnet, so "your net worth just crashed hard." The Watershed Association's Mr. Holderness says that because his property is in a potential floodplain, he's unable to sell land that is normally worth $2,500 an acre. Many are now renting land elsewhere while still paying taxes on their unusable land.
Beyond the direct financial hit to farms, Mr. Holderness says there's been a knock-on effect in the region. Machinery dealers in the area have seen profits go down; Big Sky Farms, between Quill Lake and Wynyard, had to decommission its hog-breeding facility and move to a new location; and other businesses in the small towns around the Quill Lakes have seen profits drop. And there doesn't appear to be much relief in sight.
The rising waters are part of a natural variation where the Quill Lakes "normally just fill up and get bigger and in a normal dry, hot period they become smaller and they've cycled like that for centuries," said Proffesor John Pomeroy, the Director of the University of Saskatchewan's Centre for Hydrology and a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change. He also said within the past 70 years, the Eastern Prairies have had more concentrated rainfall and more winter rains, which create more runoff – both which Environment Canada connects to climate change – and "farmers have been dramatically draining wetland sloughs in their lands into Quill Lakes."
Prof. Pomeroy approves of regulations that allow the Saskatchewan Water Agency to shut down all unapproved drainage into the Quill Lakes, but said more can be done. Specifically, he sees restoring wetlands in the Quill Lakes basin as a way to reduce inflows into the lakes. A Quill Lakes drainage plan proposed in 2015 could have helped, but was vetoed by the province because of environmental concerns around draining salt water into the Qu'Appelle river system.
As action remains on hold, the number of Canadian agricultural operations is decreasing and those that remain are larger and more capital-intensive, according to a Statistics Canada report released in May. The Zerbins, like many other smaller operations, have had to buy or rent new land to continue farming.
Mr. Holderness says the losses can be devastating, describing one 80-year-old neighbour who spends most of his days sitting in his yard staring at the water. "He worked his entire life, he's ready for retirement, and just about everything he worked for is slowly disappearing under the water," he says. "Everything."