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MFGA Aquanty project begins to bear fruit

The full Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association Aquanty project won’t be launched until next spring, 
but test scenarios are beginning to flow through the hydrological model

Data is beginning to flow from the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA) Aquanty project, although results are preliminary.

The hydrological model, to be launched in March 2018, will mimic the interaction between water and land in the Assiniboine River Basin.

“As we learn more about the MFGA Aquanty model, it becomes more and more evident that this model has great potential as a necessary decision-support tool for flood and drought planning in the Assiniboine River Basin,” Dave Koslowsky, Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association chair, said.

Announced in 2016, the over-$3-million project will use HydroGeoSphere software developed by research company Aquanty Inc. The software has previously been used for site assessment in the mining and energy industry, flood risk assessment, research on groundwater in Prairie potholes and other applications. The company has turned to Saskatchewan IT firm ISM to interpret and package its data for the public. Data will be available through an online portal and may be used to create tables, graphs, line plots and maps to reflect different scenarios.

The finished product will include five interconnected models, one for the entire region, one for each of the three sub-basins (the Assiniboine, Souris and Qu’Appelle rivers), and an in-depth analysis of the Assiniboine-Birdstail Watershed. The watershed crosses the Manitoba-Saskatch­ewan border and runs from south of Miniota to Riding Mountain National Park.

Nearing completion

The project has faced its first stress test after a scenario added riparian vegetation to the Assiniboine-Birdstail Watershed. Initial results were presented during a June 21 Aquanty project tour in Russell.

The test simulated a 300-metre buffer around waterways and measured impact on river flow rates, according to Alaba Boluwade, one of the project’s scientists. Results showed peak flows were reduced and snowmelt run-off was delayed with the increase in riparian vegetation. The model consistently matched flow trends when compared to historical data, although exact flows varied somewhat from observed measurements in several years studied.

Steve Frey, one of the lead researchers on the project, called the results, “very promising because we see that the model is sensitive to the elements of the landscape that it should be sensitive to.”

“We’re trying to simulate Mother Nature to the best of our ability and we’re building, basically, a three-dimensional realization of what the real world looks like, but it’s only a model. Models are inherently uncertain,” he said. “It should never be looked at as an exact replica of the natural system, but the fact that we rely on underlying physics and physical laws of how water moves through the surface and subsurface means that we can capture the key elements of what drives water flows under flood and drought conditions.”

The watershed was singled out both for its size — 7,000 square kilometres compared to the 40,000-60,000 square kilometres of the Assiniboine, Souris or Qu’Appelle river basins — as well as diversity of cropland, forest and grasslands, Frey told MFGA publication, the Grasslander, earlier this year.

“The smaller we go in area, the more resolution we can carry,” Frey later said. “So if we want to identify localized impacts of land use changes in and around the rivers, such as putting more forages and grasslands into the landscape, we can see the highest level of detail in the smaller models.

“We actually are using information generated at a much larger scale to drive the local-scale simulations,” he added. “The groundwater systems are all interconnected and stream flows are interconnected, so we need to know what’s going on around these local high-resolution areas in order to really resolve what’s going on within them.”

Boluwade hopes to model similar scenarios with a 50-metre buffer now that initial results have come in.

Useful tool

Frey says the project’s main goal is to quantify the role of forage and grassland in the watershed, but the finished model will have implications for climate change policy, drainage and flood mitigation and nutrient transport, among others.

“I’m quite encouraged,” Ryan Canart, Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District manager, said. “I think the different uses for the model are going to grow as we learn a little bit more about it.”

The conservation district is one of the main stakeholders in the Assiniboine-Birdstail Watershed and was the focus of the June 21 tour.

Canart says he is already considering other scenarios he would like to run through the program. In particular, he says the model may shed light on infiltration-focused farm management and how it compares to water management infrastructure. Surface water management is among the district’s top priorities, as laid out in the Assiniboine-Birdstail Integrated Watershed Management Plan.

“I think you can take the model and add 50 small dams to the landscape and run them all and say, ‘How does that affect how much peak flow comes through?’ and get a number,” he said. “And then you can say, ‘OK, with the same amount of money we could work with 10-15 farms and could put in practices that increase the organic content in their soil, therefore holding “x” gallons of water, how does that compare to the small-dam concept?’”

Water control structures will account for a significant part of the district’s budget this year, Canart said during a tour stop at one such structure.

The model will also back their education programming and outreach to local farmers with scientific evidence, Canart said.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association is now identifying potential user groups and how those groups might access the project.

 

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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