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Waterlogged Alberta counties waiting months for decisions on disaster relief

After a hard winter and spring season, many counties in northern Alberta are requesting disaster relief funding from the province - but after months of waiting, they still haven't heard a response.

Of 25 applications filed between July 2016 and July 2017, 23 still under review

Range Road 54 North off Highway 646 was deemed impassable by St. Paul County. This road is part of its disaster relief claim for $6.78 million. (Provided)

Heavy rainfall has eroded every inch of the road to and from Brian McGonigal's farm in northeastern Alberta.

The rain damage ties up trucks and forces him to take a 16-kilometre detour to get to his property. Last year, excess precipitation ruined a quarter of his total crop growth.  

"It looks like a lake," McGonigal said in an interview. "Harvest is coming, we kind of need the road for hauling grain in and out of the farm."

Roads are flooded throughout the County of St. Paul, where McGonigal's farm is located.

"Everyone deserves to have a good road to drive on," Sheila Kitz, the county's chief administrative officer, said in an interview. "We just can't seem to catch a break this year."

Now, the county is asking the province for help. It filed an application in July for $6.8 million in provincial disaster relief.

But it could face a long wait. Of 25 applications for provincial disaster relief assistance filed by cities, counties, towns and other municipalities between July 2016 and July 2017, 23 are still pending.

The story in the County of St. Paul county is a familiar one, as rural areas across northern Alberta continue to see the effects of one-in-50-year rainfall levels on crops, roads and infrastructure.  

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry reported Aug. 3 that northeast and northwestern Alberta continue to receive above-average levels of rainfall. Some areas have received up to 370 millimetres of rain since April 1, close to the total amount of precipitation received in an average year.

Brian McGonigal's road, Range Road 110, has been flooded with up to one metre of water since April. The farmer has to take a 16-kilometre detour to access his lands. (Brian McGonigal)

23 cases still under review

The Alberta government provides disaster recovery funding to help municipalities and counties recover from widespread "extraordinary" damage and loss that is not covered by insurance. In rural areas, precipitation is considered extraordinary when it is at least at a one-in-50 year level.

The disaster recovery program is administered by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, part of Alberta Municipal Affairs.

Information from Municipal Affairs shows that between July 2016 and July 2017, 25 cities, towns, counties and municipal districts requested $32.4 million in provincial disaster relief.

One application, from the City of Lloydminster, has been accepted. A small request from the City of Brooks was denied. Twenty-three others are pending.

These are the counties, towns and municipalities that applied for disaster relief from July 2016 to July 2017. (CBC )

Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said in an emailed statement that the cases still pending are under review by a hydrologist and a committee "to consider if the event is extraordinary." Recommendations for funding go to the provincial cabinet.

Agency staff visited Westlock, Grande Prairie and the County of Wetaskiwin in May and June to measure the damages in these hard-hit counties.

All three counties had waited about eight months from their filing date to receive a visit from AEMA representatives.  

'So many disasters in Alberta'

Smoky Lake County, 135 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, filed a formal request in June for $944,000 in disaster relief.

Cory Ollikka, the county's chief administrative officer, said he's not surprised that so many applications are under review.

"There's been so many disasters in Alberta recently ... Fort Mac, wildfires. The pot of money has just shrunk," he said.

In 2015, the federal government reduced disaster relief coverage across the country.

Ottawa now only covers disasters with damages exceeding $12 million. Previously, it helped with damages over $3 million.

Farmers seeing losses on their fields

Because of the rain and an early onset of winter, many Alberta farmers were unable to harvest all of their crops last year. The problem also prevented many farmers from seeding their land this spring.

The Agriculture Financial Services Corporation, a Crown corporation that provides loans, insurance and disaster assistance to farmers and agri-businesses, reported in July that 950,000 insured acres remained unharvested last year.

In the three years prior to 2016, the annual average of unharvested acres in Alberta was only about 23,000 acres, the corporation said.

As of July 18, 612,000 acres remained unseeded, compared to an average of 76,000 acres in the period 2012 to 2016.

An AFSC spokesperson told CBC News in an emailed statement that excess rainfall doesn't count under insurance coverage unless harvest operations are affected.

Al Kemmere, president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, said some AFSC insurance programs "might not meet the expectation or the need of individual farmers."

On his farm in the County of St. Paul, Brian McGonigal lost $992,000 in abandoned wheat, barley and canola crops during the last harvesting season.

He said the damages are uninsured. 

A driver goes down Highway 28 in St. Paul County. (Provided)

The canola that he did harvest had to be dried throughout the winter, slowing down sales.

McGonigal said there's no sign of drier pastures to come.

"We didn't get everything seeded this spring," he said. "It's going to take a long time to make up that million."

anna.desmarais@cbc.ca

@anna_desmarais

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