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Whitewater Lake region under threat

Excess water covering dikes and boardwalks and burying farmland and roads

On a recent visit to Whitewater Lake in southwestern Manitoba, my husband and I were dismayed to see first hand the impact that excess water is having on the area. Years ago we made our first trip there and enjoyed walking on the long dikes and boardwalks, surrounded by a variety of water birds and shorebirds. The birds are still there, but the lake has completely covered the dikes and boardwalks, and buried much nearby farmland and many roads.

Located roughly west of Boissevain and northeast of Deloraine, Whitewater Lake has been designated as a Wildlife Management Area, a Canadian Heritage Marsh, and an Important Bird Area of global significance. Over 250 bird species have been sighted; some species nest in the area, while large numbers use it as a staging area during migration.

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two women holding a plaque

But the lake has been steadily increasing in size over the last few years, partly due to heavier-than-usual rain and snowfall, as well as to man-made drainage. It is up to triple its former size, and is now at, or near, record-high levels. This year, heavy rains in May and early June only exacerbated the problems.

Whitewater Lake is a terminal or interior drainage basin, which means it has no natural outlet, except by seepage and evaporation. A 2011 study looked into the feasibility of a drainage outlet on the west side of the lake, through the Medora Creek. At that time it was suggested that such an outlet, if operated during the summer months, would be costly and have a negligible effect. The study’s recommendation, issued in May 2012 by the Turtle Mountain Conservation District, was that the focus should be on reducing the trend of upstream drainage.

This year a local group, the Whitewater Lake Management Committee, is seeking to find some way to control the drainage and lower the water level. With that in mind it recently met with Ducks Unlimited and Habitat Heritage. The committee would like the province to construct one or more channels to try to drain the lake to a manageable level. According to Deloraine-Winchester Reeve Gord Weidenhamer, the lake is about five feet higher than they would like. In 2011 the town of Deloraine was itself threatened, and municipal officials are fearful that this could reoccur.

The road to the viewpoint is badly eroded.

The road to the viewpoint is badly eroded.
photo: Gamache Photos

Farmers have been greatly impacted, with more than 15,000 acres of former farmland now flooded. This is plainly visible as fields and pastures are submerged. Some roads have been closed while others have water lapping at both sides. Along the south side of the lake, Ducks Unlimited used to maintain a viewing tower and control dikes; the place is now in shambles. Pasture fences poke through several feet of water, with some fences completely under water.

Six years ago we walked for several kilometres along the control dikes. These dikes have now disappeared and a viewing tower at the end of one dike has collapsed completely. Just last summer we could still drive into the south viewing mound, although the dikes were not accessible. Now the road to the viewpoint is badly eroded, no longer drivable. In early June, we parked and walked into the mound, but I suspect that this will soon be impossible; a few more strong winds will probably take out the remaining path. A washroom at the south mound has already slid into the water.

Over the years we have enjoyed watching snow geese and Canada geese, tundra swans, pelicans, numerous varieties of ducks, and shorebirds such as the American avocets, Wilson’s phalaropes, marbled godwits and sandpipers. The last couple of years we saw great egrets and snowy egrets, glossy ibis and white-faced ibis — all birds normally found much farther south. These birds can still be viewed from some of the surrounding roads, but those roads, too, are under threat. It is hoped that the Whitewater Lake Management Committee will manage to get the help needed to come up with a solution.

To see the area drive south of Boissevain, then west on Highway No. 3 and follow the signs to the south viewing mound. If you go this summer, it may still be possible to walk in there. Roads at the west end of the lake (mile 132 W) and on the northeast side (around 119/120 W and 19 N) are also good spots for bird viewing.

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