Deferral of essential water management infrastructure and management in recent years, combined with serious problems of climate change, is frustrating Manitoba’s economic growth and environmental health. Both objectives resonate with the public.
Rhetoric about “fixing Lake Manitoba’s water levels,” and cleaning up Lake Winnipeg in terms of algae, sedimentation and erosion, highlights the problems but doesn’t solve them. Shifting water level and flow problems from urban areas to farmers, ranchers and cottage owners by using the Portage Diversion on an annual basis, without addressing the outflow capacity from Lake Manitoba, shows disrespect for rural Manitobans and government responsibility to alleviate the situation.
Although nothing has been done to solve Lake Manitoba problems over the past 50 years, it has always been assumed that increasing the flow capacity of existing rivers to the northeast would be the solution. Much attention has been given to enlarging the capacity of the Dauphin River, or another channel in that area to carry excess water from Lake Manitoba to Lake Winnipeg.
There are three serious problems with this narrow approach. First, it is the most expensive route to take. Second, high water volumes using that route will be carrying considerable silt and nutrients that will further overload Lake Winnipeg with nutrients it doesn’t need. Third, there are four First Nation communities along the proposed route (about 6,000 people) who have already suffered from excess flows in recent years.
Ultimately, this route lowers the chance of effectively removing nutrients and sediment that encourages blue-green algae growth and warmer water in Lake Winnipeg.
There is an alternative that is cheaper and cleaner: a system to pump water from Lake Winnipegosis to Cedar Lake.
Clear water from Lake Winnipegosis will be diverted to Cedar Lake, removing much of the flow normally entering Lake Manitoba from Lake Winnipegosis via the Waterhen. This would allow the extra water diverted from the Assiniboine to remain within the banks of the existing rivers from Fairford down to Lake Winnipeg. The additional water entering Cedar Lake will offset the drop in flow of the Saskatchewan River in recent years due to upstream irrigation and climate change, thereby restoring flows at the Grand Rapids Generating Station. It should be noted that Manitoba Hydro argued against this option, saying it didn’t need the flow, but it really appeared to be an excuse to justify hydro developments along the Nelson, cost effectiveness be damned.
The Lake Winnipeg blue-green algae problem flourishes because of excess phosphorus. Much of this comes from the Red River, in part from sewage from Winnipeg, and in part due to the damage done in recent years on the nutrient absorption capacity of Netley Marsh.
The mess in the Netley Marsh is the result of developments approved by the previous government in recent years, yet despite that they are contrary to any acceptable form of wetland management. A sewage treatment plant for Winnipeg has been delayed by lack of funding,
Negotiations with the federal government for these infrastructure projects could break the log-jam and begin the path to take Lake Winnipeg off “death watch.” The new federal government is anxious to allocate infrastructure money to projects that are “shovel ready.” These projects fit that category in the short term.
Although a recent study found that Manitoba Hydro regulation of Lake Winnipeg has not affected erosion and water quality, there is good reason for a review by a credible and objective authority to satisfy everyone this is actually so.
In large measure, southwest Manitoba’s flooding problems in recent years were significantly exacerbated by massive but unrecorded and unlicensed on-farm drainage in Saskatchewan. The consequence of this was unprecedented sheets of water pouring into Manitoba in volumes exceeding capability beyond drain and storage designs based on natural run-off. Now that both Manitoba and Saskatchewan have governments of similar policy views, it may be possible for them to work together to solve some of these problems.
Premier Selinger seemed to isolate himself from co-operative initiatives with Saskatchewan and other adjacent jurisdictions, even though this drainage issue is well known. Now is the time to open a positive conversation with Saskatchewan to address this concern and others such as the Port of Churchill.
A shift from rhetoric to action is long overdue.