'There's nothing left': Sask. flooding forces family from farm that was home to 4 generations

Due to many factors including heavy rainfall and a lack of drainage from the Quill Lakes, water has been steadily encroaching on the Zerbin family's farmland in Saskatchewan for the past decade.

Crop losses from decades-long flooding disaster pegged at $50M annually

In the Quill Lakes area in Saskatchewan, the rising water is often described by locals to be like a terminal disease — it's eating away slowly and you know it will kill you, but you have to carry on.

That sentiment has been felt by the Zerbin family for the better part of the past decade.

For four generations, their farm has been located about four kilometres from the southwest edge of the lake, near the intersections of Highways 6 and 16.

But due to numerous factors including heavy rainfall and a lack of drainage from the lake, water has been steadily encroaching on their farmland, and now their yard.

"It's just like a big monster coming across the field. It just slowly just keeps coming, little bit, little bit, little bit," said farm owner Garnet Zerbin.

"Now that we've got water on all four sides... there's nothing left here."

Garnet Zerbin says the family put up a good fight, but knows when to 'call her quits.' Heavy rainfall and a lack of drainage from the Quill Lakes have caused problems with the Zerbin family's farmland in Saskatchewan for the past decade (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The flooding got so bad, the government helped the Zerbins build a berm around their yard to keep it dry.

You can't beat wind and water. It's too powerful.- Garnet Zerbin

But upkeep on the berm is up to the Zerbins, and every day, more of the soil and gravel barrier erodes away.

On days with heavy winds, the water laps right over into their yard.

"Until you live it and you're here, you fully don't understand the feelings, and the emotion and the frustration, anger, everything. I've had them all to do with this berm," Zerbin said.

"You can't beat wind and water. It's too powerful."

Shared experience

The daily worry about current conditions and fear of what's to come are felt by many farmers in the region, according to Kerry Holderness, chair of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association.

The association formed a few years ago to give a unified voice about the flooding.

Holderness said many of his neighbours have packed up and moved on. It's not just their homes being affected, but perhaps more importantly their farmland and primary livelihood.

A berm is all that protects the Zerbin family from the rising lake waters. Every day, more of it crumbles away. (CBC)

The current estimate is $50 million in agricultural losses per year. That number continues to grow as the lake water keeps creeping forward and overtaking once-fertile soil.

In spring 2016, water levels in the lake reached the highest since they started being recorded in 1885, according to the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency.

Kerry Holderness, chair of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association, says people are at their wit's end trying to deal with the flooding. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The Zerbins have lost 20 quarter sections of land they had already paid for — about four times the size of New York City's Central Park.

Now the family is unable to use the underwater and salt-encrusted land as collateral at the bank to purchase other land to make up for their losses.

Zerbin estimates he has lost up to $2 million since the flooding started.

Getting out

The Zerbins are one of the families who have had enough. Every day, more of the berm that kept the water out of their yard is crumbling away.

That has led to plenty of stressful nights, wondering whether they would wake up to find water halfway up their kitchen cupboards.

Last month, the family gave up on waiting for government action. They mustered what they could and moved the majority of their farm infrastructure to a new property.

Insurance only covered moving the main house, so locals banded together to raise funds to help the family move the rest of the farm buildings, like the shop and cattle shed.

On windy or rainy days, the lake water splashes over the berm into the Zerbins' yard. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Zerbin's parents, Garth and Cynthia Zerbin, are still living on the original home property — one of the last structures left at the old yard. They hope their house will sell so they can join their son at the new place.

It has been devastating for the family to watch the life they built disintegrate.

"Financially, our emotions, just everything has been changed by this incoming water that is not going away," said Cynthia Zerbin as tears streamed down her face. 

Sense of urgency

Holderness has spent countless personal hours drawing up maps and hiring people to try and come up with solutions, but none has been accepted at the policy level.

"It's becoming an economic and a regional disaster ... and if we don't get a handle on it pretty soon, we might be able to call it a manmade disaster because we have all the engineering in place to fix this," he said.

Garth Zerbin had to get a new pump system installed to keep water out of the house. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

In the past, proposals were rejected because of fear that drainage from the high saline lakes would increase the salt content of other connected water systems, such as the Qu'Appelle river systems and those that head into Last Mountain Lake near Regina.

The most recent plan to divert water into the Katawagan Creek (leading to Last Mountain Lake) was turned down after public outcry in 2015. 

"The process is challenging. There's so many people involved and so many people's concerns that have to be listened to," he said.

But according to Holderness, the flooding won't stop soon. The cycle is expected to continue for 10 to 25 more years.

The lake level has risen seven vertical metres since the flooding began, Holderness said. Another half metre and he said the spillover into those water systems will happen uncontrolled.

Holderness has submitted a new proposal that's awaiting government approval. It suggests draining off fresher water with a lower salt content from the edges of the lake. That would be diverted downstream to take some of the pressure off the Quill Lakes.

"If we don't put something in place now and it starts to rain again, we might not have the opportunity in the future to do it."

Managing a spillover

The Water Security Agency agrees on the potential for a spillover effect. 

In a mitigation study of the Quill Lakes from November 2016, the agency said that if nothing is done, the lakes could eventually overflow naturally to the Last Mountain Lake area, causing "significant damage" to land and infrastructure.

Patrick Boyle with the Water Security Agency says the flooding at the Quill Lakes is one of its top priorities, but the problem can't be solved overnight. (MIcki Cowan/CBC)

Patrick Boyle, spokesperson with the Water Security Agency, said a study last year looked at 26 possible ways to alleviate the flooding.

The agency is moving forward on one of them: a plan to manage agricultural drainage and make sure farmers aren't directing it into the lakes.

But Boyle acknowledges agricultural drainage isn't the main factor behind the flooding. The real culprit is above-normal precipitation stretching back to 2005.

Still, the government has opened an office in Wadena, Sask., near the Quill Lakes, to work with farmers on their drainage plans. 

"We haven't really moved as fast as possible to try to catch up with the weather situation, which is difficult. So we're looking at solutions that give us some gains now and in the long term," he said.

Garth Zerbin says he never expected to have to leave his family farm. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Moving forward

Garth Zerbin said part of the stress of the surrounding water is trying to continue to live life amidst it. Simple things such as having friends over to visit becomes impossible.

It's changed our life in every way.- Cynthia Zerbin

The family said countless little things have changed. Telephone lines and their sewer system had to have a complete reworking.

Now with their good pasture land underwater and the yard unusable, the family is wondering whether it will have to sell its herd.

"It's changed our life in every way. I can't think of any way that our life hasn't been changed because of the water," said Cynthia Zerbin.

Now in their 60s, starting over isn't going to be easy for Garth and Cynthia Zerbin. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The family hopes the government finds a solution quickly, before more damage is done.

Until then, they're looking toward the future at their new yard. It's a different future than the family would have pictured 10 years ago.

"You've got to start completely like if you were a 20-year-old now and just going out and starting your life," said Garth Zerbin.

"Most of the stuff is gone, so you've got to start over. Try to make the best that you can."


Micki Cowan


Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.