“If you drain, you might be shooting yourself in the foot.”
– HANK VENEMA, IISD
Manitoba needs a new water policy, with watershed management as the cornerstone, to prepare for the coming impact of a changing global climate, a newly released report says.
The strategy should emphasize conserving water on the land instead of draining it away, says the report by the Winnipegbased International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Throughout much of Manitoba’s recent history, drainage often was the watchword for rural development. In fact, the 76-page report describes 1870 to 1959 as The Drainage Era, when settlement and land clearing for agriculture made drainage necessary.
People forget some of the Red River Valley, today the richest farming region in Manitoba, was once a swamp.
But the creation between 1959 and 1990 of conservation districts brought about a watershed-based approach to water management. The report, released Jan. 13, calls
it The First Watershed Era.
Today, Manitoba is in a Second Watershed Era amid concerns about the health of Lake Winnipeg.
The report calls for an Adaptation Era and an integrated approach to land and water issues, based on watersheds.
This approach would kill two birds with one stone. It would mitigate the effects of climate change (droughts and floods) while simultaneously reducing the nutrient load in Lake Winnipeg, said Hank Venema, the report’s lead author.
“By doing watershed-based management, we create a synergy between climate change adaptation and nutrient management,” said Venema, reached by phone in Israel.
He recognized drainage was needed in the early days of settlement to bring agricultural land into production.
But that approach to water management may have to change. Climate change, which Venema called a fait accompli, will result in erratic water supplies, longer growing seasons and the need to stretch out water resources, he said.
“If you drain, you might be shooting yourself in the foot because you’ll need that water later in the year.”
Conservation districts could be the template for integrated watershed management, said Veneman.
Currently, there are 18 conservation districts including over 130 municipalities covering nearly all of agro-Manitoba. They operate under the Manitoba Conservation District program, a provincial-municipal partnership for conserving and managing water and soil resources.
Government will have to invest in policies and programs to prepare for the variability that climate change will bring, said Veneman.
Municipalities also have a role to play, he added, citing the recent Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS) pilot project in the western Manitoba municipality of Blanshard.
Ian Wishart, Keystone Agricultural Producers president, said if authorities want better water management, they’ll have to pay farmers for it.
“We’ve had a lot of regulation but we’ve never had the incentive programs to go with it,” said Wishart.
“If you want farmers to maintain and enhance wetlands… we have to have some incentives to do it.” [email protected]