Conservation and municipal officials opened the gates here June 16 to release water that had been held back through the spring as part of a water control project expected to bring multiple benefits to the area.
The June opening of the gates on the Pelly’s Lake dam built last year is the latest phase of the large-scale water management project set up between the La Salle Redboine Conservation District and a half-dozen landowners in the area.
Pelly’s Lake is the site of numerous failed attempts at drainage over the years, until the conservation district and numerous partner groups funded construction of the Pelly’s Lake Watershed Management Project to back flood the valley with a volume of water about equivalent to one-third of the Stephenfield Lake Reservoir downstream.
The water is released by early summer, and by early fall, the area should be dry enough for local farmers who leased their land to cut hay.
They’re trying to mimic how the water would naturally flow over the landscape, said LSRCD district manager Justin Reid. There’s been a lot of man-made drainage in the area, but prior to that some water would have lay here awhile before moving downstream.
“We’re trying to bring back some unnatural order to the system to help it do what it originally would have done back in the past,” he said.
The slow-running water will serve as a late-season recharge for reservoirs downstream. But that’s only one of the benefits of the project, which has been supported by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp. and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is demonstrating.
A slower flow reduces the potential for flooding, and improves habitat protection. The slower flow can stem the flow of phosphorus and there is ongoing interest in seeing how cattail harvests may become new sources of renewable energy.
The Pelly’s Lake watershed area encompasses about 23,000 acres and ongoing IISD research is showing the potential for removing 5,000 kg of phosphorus per year by keeping the wetland intact, said Justin Reid, manager for the LSRCD. The phosphorus is taken up by the vast sea of cattail that has established in the valley.
“With enough work and effort in the cattail-harvesting portion, we can more than make up for the phosphorus in this area, instead of draining it into Lake Winnipeg,” he said.
Staff with International Institute for Sustainable Development were also at last week’s demo and spoke about the many potential ways to transform cattails into biofuels and soil amendment products.
Their experiments on a 380-hectare site of cattail show they can recapture anywhere from 20 to 60 kg per hectare of phosphorus, said Karla Zubrycki, project and communications manager (water) at the IISD.
“That represents a large amount of phosphorus,” she said. “Scale that up even larger and imagine sites like this throughout the Lake Winnipeg basin, or just through the Red River watershed or Assiniboine watershed, and the amount of phosphorus that could be captured and prevented from going downstream.”
Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) agricultural research and development manager Lorne Grieger spoke about ongoing experiments to cut and bale cattail, which will determine ways farmers can use their regular farm equipment to harvest cattail.
They hope this larger-scale project can be replicated on a smaller scale on multiple landowners using a couple of berms and some small culverts, Reid said.
“Basically, what we’re trying to show is if you have borderline wet areas that you’re struggling to get a crop in on some of these wet years, there really is a benefit to holding back a little bit of water,” he said.
“If you have a lot of small projects holding water back on the landscape it really eases the overall flood situation in the spring. A landowner can have a huge benefit on his downstream neighbours with a little bit of work on his own land.”
One of the six participating landowners who signed a long-term conservation agreement that encompasses the 850-acre Pelly Lake project calls it a win-win for everyone involved.
“We never gave anything up,” said landowner Harold Purkess, who is also reeve of the Municipality of Victoria. “Our land stays a little more covered with water a little longer in spring, depending on the weather, but our whole pasture isn’t covered,” he said. “We get more grass and we’re hoping eventually with proper management we can get some better grass species to grow and pasture hay land in the long run.”
This land would yield very poorly if attempts were made to crop it, he continued, adding he feels Pelly’s Lake is an example of a much better way to use it, with a big-picture message for how land and water is managed.
“Water storage is going to be incredibly important,” Purkess said. “I think at some point in time we’re going to be awfully sorry if we don’t do it.”