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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Fertile farmland is at risk because of flood fears

Fertile farmland is at risk because of flood fears.



The fertile farms of Holland Marsh are just one big rainfall away from a $200 million disaster that could make them the "New Orleans of the north," a local official warns.

Art Janse, drainage superintendent for Bradford West Gwillimbury, said the area's system of canals and dikes just isn't capable of withstanding a big storm.

"There's a huge disaster just waiting to happen," Janse said yesterday, standing on the bank of one of the canals that keep water from overflowing into nearby low-lying farms north of Newmarket — often called the breadbasket of Ontario.

"If we'd gotten another 2-inch rainfall in the middle of March, it would have flooded the marsh and wiped out this year's crops."

That, he said, would cause an $84 million loss to local farmers and businesses, growing to $200 million as the impact spread to associated food processors, transportation companies and higher vegetable costs across the province.

"We're in for a lot of grief," said Janse, 68, who retired three years ago but has remained on the job on contract. "And it's not just the marsh. It would flood Highway 400 for at least a week."

Nearly 22,000 hectares of higher ground drain into the Holland Marsh area. All that keeps runoff from flooding the area are 28 kilometres of canals and earthen dikes.

Janse has lived along the canals since he was 11 and has been advocating the construction of a new canal system since 1993, when a study showed the canals to be heavy with sediment and sludge. Some areas have since filled in completely.

"It's all fallen on deaf ears," he said. "I'm just waiting for a disaster.

"This spring, all the factors were perfect for a real disaster.... The whole canal system would have maxed out."

Mayor Frank Jonkman shares Janse's fears.

But both men say they've been stymied by government red tape in their efforts to protect the valuable farmland.

"If we can't get started, we'll never get finished," Jonkman said. "One breach of the dike and we wouldn't be able to stop it until Lake Simcoe finished draining into it."

Janse explained that if surrounding lands were saturated with water and a heavy rainstorm was to strike when the silt-filled canals were unable to handle the torrent, the overflow would pour into nearby floodplain lands until it got higher than dikes. Then it would pour into the 2,800 hectares of marsh farmlands.

"That could take as little as five hours to fill 'er up if it broke the dikes at more than one spot," Janse said last night.

New Orleans suffered billions of dollars in damage last August when high water whipped by Hurricane Katrina breached an earthen dike and flooded the low-lying Louisiana city.

Al Shaw, an aquatic biologist and environmental consultant who has studied the Bradford canals, said they are ripe for a flood.

"There are portions of those canals you can walk across," Shaw said last night. "Their main purpose is to keep water from the slopes from going into the Holland Marsh.

"They cannot possibly do the job that they're designed to do if they're filled (with sediment)," he said.

"Under the right circumstances, there would be considerable damage."

The canals were last dredged in 1955, a year after Hurricane Hazel devastated southern Ontario and flooded the marsh. The effects on the marsh weren't as bad then, because the storm struck in the fall, after growing season.

At that time, the canals were widened and made deeper. But that eliminated a buffer between the roads atop the dikes and the canals, an issue that resurfaced in February after a mother and her 4-year-old son drowned when their car went into the canal.

"It's the most productive land in Ontario and among the best in Canada," Janse said. "If you just fill it full of carrots and onions, it can produce half of what this nation consumes in a year.

"But the problem is that nobody seems to care about it."

It would take $14 million and between five and seven years to build new canals, using soil removed to fill in the old ones. Janse said that in the long run, that's more economical than trying to scoop out the existing canals.

A full environmental assessment of the area, ordered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is expected to be completed in the coming months.

Janse said it is only the latest in a string of studies commissioned on the canals.

"We've been stuck in red tape for too long," he said.

"And the mayor and the town are more concerned about development and building new sewers for housing.

"Everybody thinks everybody else should foot the bill."

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