Living Labs projects hold hope for hard data

AAFC and watershed districts are working to design practical projects alongside farmers

SRRWD manager Jodi Goerzen (centre) explains a water retention project alongside landowner Wayne Chubaty (second from right).

Living Labs experiments in southeastern Manitoba will hopefully yield data to fine-tune water conservation projects and put evidence behind claims they work, says one watershed district manager.

“One of the big questions for us is: We build these — are we building them right? And for what purpose?” said Jodi Goerzen manager of Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District.

Goerzen accompanied watershed district staff, researchers, farmers, media and others on a tour of two Living Labs research sites near Ridgeville on September 23.

Living Labs is an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) initiative that conducts research on environmental issues related to agriculture in real-life contexts, the Government of Canada’s website says.

In Manitoba, Living Labs sites are set up in the Main Drain, North Shannon, Swan Lake and Upper Oak watersheds.

The Manitoba government wants water conservation programming and tends to trust the projects work, Goerzen told the tour group.

“Whether we know this is going to reduce phosphorus or whether we know it’s going to reduce flooding or provide more resiliency to drought, we know we can at least get two out of the three,” she said.

However, there’s concern that policy can get ahead of the research. For instance, if the province would ask how much phosphorus a given project is removing from the watershed, they’d struggle to do that.

“We need to know, should we be holding water for longer? For shorter? What’s the impact on the phosphorus level… it’s a big question!” Goerzen said.

Standards would help, and Goerzen said she thinks Living Labs will help figure those out.

She said she also hopes research will put data behind the cost-benefit analysis for producers considering a water retention project — such as health to animals and maintenance costs.

AAFC soil resource specialist Steve Sager shows the tour group a sampling site along the Main Drain on September 23. photo: Geralyn Wichers

The tour stopped at the Main Drain, a man-made drainage waterway, where it crosses grain farmer Les Felsch’s land. Felsch volunteered a tile-drained field for Living Labs researchers to monitor for volume of water and nutrients entering the Main Drain.

“I’ve always been a bit of a conservationist. Very concerned about water run-off, soil movement,” Felsch said.

AAFC soil resource specialist Steve Sager explained the experiment is about relating the data to land use and management practices, and how that affects water flow and quality. They can then look at best management practices (BMPs) to reduce flow or concentration if needed. There may also be opportunities for water retention projects.

Nearby, Wayne Chubaty hosts several Living Labs projects at a water-retention structure occupying a portion of his cattle pasture.

Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District worked with him to improve drainage to the piece of land through use of a swale to direct water flow, a berm and controlled culvert. The culvert backs the water up to fill the dugout and — if needed — hold back water on 25 to 35 acres.

Scientists are monitoring bug biodiversity and pasture growth at the site along with water flowing off the land.

Hard data or no, Chubaty said he’s seen improvement to the pasture.

“(It was) a swamp kind of thing with about four inches of water in it, cattle couldn’t graze in there,” he said. They’re grazing better now.

In this year’s drought conditions, Chubaty had to start hauling water for the cattle in the first week of September.

“I made it further than I would’ve without it,” he said.

This appears to demonstrate Living Labs’ mandate — part of which is to focus on farmers’ needs, AAFC’s website says.

“As the people who ultimately use these innovations, farmers are key collaborators throughout the entire process,” the website says. “They contribute knowledge and experience to their development and improvement at every step.”

AAFC said the expected result of Living Labs projects is development and use of practical technologies and farming practices to help farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change, reduce water contamination, improve soil and water conservation, and maximize wildlife habitat capacity and biodiversity on agricultural land.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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