A computer program capable of analyzing the effects of land use and simulating mitigation strategies of an entire river basin seems like a concept stolen from a futuristic movie.
However, a $1.1-million investment from the federal government has put the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA) on track for developing just that — a multi-faceted modelling platform to predict and monitor the hydrological sensitivity of the Assiniboine River Basin (ARB).
“We believe grasslands and forage crops are a critical part of the solution for future flood- and drought-ravaged areas of the ARB,” said Henry Nelson, MFGA vice-chair and project manager of the hydrology model project. “The hydrology model will showcase proactive solutions for many stakeholders across the ARB for flood and drought mitigation.”
The project will be spearheaded by MFGA, working closely with Aquanty Inc., a hydrological science and research company and IBM, the International Business Machines corporation, to develop a HydroGeoSphere modelling platform that will allow for targeted hydrological analysis and research.
Numerous groups are collaborating on the project, including the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative (ARBI), the Keystone Agriculture Producers (KAP), Manitoba Beef Producers, Agriculture Producers Association of Saskatchewan, Manitoba Conservation Districts Association, Brandon University, International Institute for Sustainable Development, the City of Minot, Manitoba Agriculture Services Corporation, the Prairie Improvement Network and a number of other provincial commodity groups.
“This project, to coin a phrase, has the potential to be a game changer in how we collectively address future water management issues ranging from extreme droughts to damaging floods,” said Allan Preston, chair of ARBI. “We can and will do a better job of multi-jurisdictional water management across the entire basin, using a holistic approach engaging all of the players and stakeholders.”
Since 2007, federal and provincial governments have dealt with multiple water-related disaster events that have caused unprecedented crop losses, property and infrastructure damage and put a strain on AgriRecovery assistance programs.
On June 13, Agriculture and Agri-Food (AAFC) Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced the million-dollar investment into the project.
“Extreme weather events have created many challenges for Prairie farmers in recent years. We’re committed to working together with the agriculture sector to equip farmers with the tools they need to proactively manage business risks such as these,” MacAulay said.
Nelson said the $1.1 million from AAFC will cover approximately two-thirds of the project costs, with the remaining balance coming from the provincial government and stakeholder contributions.
“Collecting the data is really where the big cost is here and that is why we are appreciative that AAFC has recognized the value of this,” Nelson said. “Manitoba Agriculture is another key supporter in this and it has provided some financial contribution, as well as some in-kind contribution through staff. It has also provided funding to support a post-doctorate fellow that will be situated at Brandon University to work on the model.”
The first phase of the project will run from now until March 31, 2018. Aquanty Inc. will develop the data analytics system that will be run on a high-performance computing system from IBM.
Existing data on the Assiniboine basin, as well as the Qu’Appelle and Souris sub-basins and Birdtail watershed, will be fed into the platform.
“This program takes into account the soil characteristics, topography, surface and soil moisture and the groundwater levels and then it has the capability to determine how the water flows will react in that environment,” Nelson said.
By March 31, 2018, the HydroGeoSphere simulation software will be capable of running complex simulations of water movement through surface water and groundwater flow systems.
“In this first phase we are looking at infrastructure and the impact of perennial forages and grasslands on the landscape, with respect to quantities of water as it moves through the basin,” Nelson said.
Nelson says the exciting part of this program is that it allows users to input mitigation theories, see the outcome and determine the best possible solutions without real-life investments.
“Basically, we will be able to look at what is causing downstream flows and then create a few ‘what if’ scenarios to see what the outcomes would be without having to invest anything,” Nelson said. “For instance, you can say, if we changed our infrastructure so that we had a dike or ditch in a certain place, or if we were to change our vegetation, if there were 10 per cent more forages what are the impacts on water management within this basin?”
KAP president, Dan Mazier agrees that the program’s ability to test out ‘what if’ scenarios will be one of the biggest benefits.
“This is going to change the way we plan things. We will be able to monitor and simulate so much more criteria that it is going to fundamentally change the way we look at infrastructure and how we design it. That is where I see the biggest benefit in this project,” Mazier said.
According to Nelson, following Phase 1 of the project, MFGA hopes to be able to move into a second phase that uses the tool to examine nutrient management and the impact of different types of management practices.
He said that MFGA aims to collect sound information on the impacts of various farming management practices in order to determine the most beneficial practices for the land and the surrounding watershed.
“There are a lot of ecological goods and services, things that forages and grasslands contribute, that aren’t necessarily recognized in the economy. Things like habitat for biodiversity, for pollinators, carbon sequestrations, benefits on climate change, and soil health,” Nelson said. “Farmers are producing more than just food and this tool is a great opportunity to gather some data to show that.”
Many of the project stakeholders also believe information produced by this project will create more predictability and a better understanding of drought and floods.
“Recent flood events in the basin have severely taxed government resources in addressing claims for compensation,” Preston said, noting the technology developed in the Aquanty project provides more opportunity to study preventive measures, risk mitigation activities, to reduce the need for financial support programs.