Record flooding besieges farms along Saint John River

by George Fullerton
A heavy snow load in the north Saint John River watershed rapidly melted and resulted in a major flooding event on the lower part of the watershed in late April and early May.
Claude Pelletier, retired manager of the Madawaska Forest Products Marketing Board in Edmundston, N.B., said, “We had a very significant snow pack in the north and at the end of April it warmed up very fast and the entire snow pack disappeared in one week’s time. That makes a lot of water and it all has to go downriver.”

George Bourque and his son Vaughan milk more than 40 cows on their farm in Lincoln, just south of Fredericton. The Bourque farm is in a recognized flood zone and the Bourques are always vigilant concerning spring freshets. They’ve had to deal with major floods in 1973 and 2008 – and again this year.
“We saw the river level rise nine feet in just 12 hours and we knew we had to get our milking herd out,” said George Bourque. “We moved the milking herd into the dairy building at the Fredericton Exhibition grounds.”
The Bourque herd was joined by the Jack Perley herd from Maugerville, making the milking string up to 100 head.
Bourque said they were thankful for a place to house their cattle and for access to the Athol Craswell Memorial milking system. However, he said moving each cow from a tie stall to the unit was a challenge.
“Our cows had never seen a halter and it was a strange experience for them to get moved for milking,” he said. “Their production dropped 60 percent as a result of the move and the strange new surroundings. But I can’t say enough for the volunteer help that showed up to help us out. We had all kinds of people, some with farm and cattle experience and some with none whatsoever. But they all wanted to help and we can’t thank them enough. We would ask them if they had cattle handling experience, and if they had none we would give them a fork or a shovel. Some people were around for a couple days and some were around for a lot of days.”
He added that there’s a lot of labour involved in carrying feed to and manure away from 100 mature cows.
“We also had many farmers dropping off bales of hay and silage,” said Bourque. “The Co-op store and Shur-Gain both brought us feed. A culvert company made us up troughs out of culverts and that helped us keep water in front of the cows. We also had a retired plumber come and help us out a good deal. And local food stores brought us food for all the volunteers.”
Bourque’s dry cows and young stock remained on the farm. They were provided with extra hay to build up the pack and keep them out of the water. Bourque said there was 20 inches of water in the milk barn. 
The Bourques left their milk tank full until the water dropped so that it wouldn’t float out of its position, and they dumped the tank contents as the water level receded. They didn’t have any electrical problems because they follow regulations for operating in a flood zone, including locating electrical system components above flood levels. They did have vacuum pump and lift pump motors submerged in the floodwater, but they were dried, serviced with repacked bearings, and put back into operation.
The Bourques’ discbine and other equipment became submerged, requiring repacked bearings and fresh lube oils. An additional spring chore was collecting round silage bales that floated out of storage and scattered around the farm.
In the excitement and confusion, Bourque saw a calf delivered at the exhibition building, and christened it High Water. At 74 years of age, Bourque said he’s not interested in seeing another flood of the same magnitude as this year’s.

Henry Knight has managed beef operations for decades in Lower Jemseg, where high water in the spring is a common occurrence.
“This flood came very quickly,” said Knight, who had cows divided into two yards prior to the flood. As a result of the rising water, he had to move the cattle around and ended up locating one group of cows a little closer to the house than usual. “The group close to the homestead were fenced on the front lawn just above the high water,” he said.
Water filled the basement in the family’s home to within three feet of the main living floor.
“For several days we boated right up the middle of the road to reach our vehicles on high ground,” said Knight.
Knight said he understands that there was an exceptional snow load in the Saint John River’s upper watershed, but also questioned if forest harvest practices and head pond management may have aggravated the snowmelt and freshet dynamics.
Commenting on damage to many waterside residences, he said, “It looks like a bomb went off.”
Knight said a good deal of his farm equipment, which was parked well above the normal high water mark, became submerged in the flood. “We will have to drain gear boxes and repack bearings before we put it to work,” he said. “It just means a whole lot of extra work we didn’t really need.”
Buzz Harvey owns the iconic Harvey’s Big Potato produce stand in Maugerville, downriver from Fredericton. As a lifelong resident of Maugerville, Harvey has worked alongside his family and neighbours through numerous floods.
Harvey was a teenager during the 1973 flood. “This year was a major flood and the water was deeper than it was in 1973,” he said. “I have a novel way to measure the height of the flood water. In 1973, the water level just touched the crotch of the Big Potato. In 2008, the highest level was about eight inches below his crotch. This year, the water got an inch or two above his crotch, so it was something of a record for us.”
Harvey was away on holiday prior to the beginning of the flood and upon his return home spent two days moving equipment and supplies to safety. The Harveys also had to prepare their house for the flood, moving appliances and furniture to higher levels.
Harvey said the water rose very quickly over a couple of days. He said they weren’t expecting much of a flood because the southern part of New Brunswick had little snow pack and the spring runoff was practically a non-event.
Harvey was critical of an early provincial health department recommendation that farmers in the affected flood zone wait 30 to 90 days before planting any crops to avoid contamination. He said that would effectively cancel any cropping operations for 2018.
“We have seen floods and high freshets cover agricultural land for years and there has not been much concern about flood waters impacting food crops,” said Harvey. “If the government is concerned, why don’t they do testing? During the flood, the volume moving downriver was greater than a billion gallons per hour and that would dilute anything to a very low level.”
Harvey continued, “When I was young, every municipality on the river dumped raw sewage directly into the river and we witnessed high water across the land and there were food crops produced and consumed without consequence. If there was no planting here for 90 days, the only crop we could produce to harvest would be radishes.”
However, the provincial government eventually stated that it was reconsidering those timelines. “Those numbers are being re-examined,” said Paul Bradley, a health department spokesperson, as reported by the CBC in mid-May. “We don’t really have a guideline for people, but we’re working on it.”
Despite the flooding, Harvey is optimistic about another crop year.
“We have amazing soils here,” he said. “Our topsoils are over a sand and gravel base. And as soon as the river level drops and gets back to normal, our soils dry out quickly and we can work it and get crops in the ground.”
As the severity of damage caused by the flooding on the lower Saint John River became apparent, the New Brunswick government announced a disaster financial assistance program for affected individuals and businesses.
The maximum assistance for structural repairs to private residences is $160,000, while the maximum assistance for non-profit organizations and small businesses, including farm and agriculture operations, is $500,000.