“From the top of the watershed, the elevation drops 600 feet in five miles,” the manager of the Deerwood Soil and Water Management Association explained to the visitors, who have come from across the country to learn about this Manitoba watershed.
Most of the land in the watershed is farmed despite the slope, which brings the danger of erosion and washout from spring run-off and heavy summer downpours. That’s why a group of area farmers got together in the 1980s, first forming a management association, which led to the building of 26 small dams slowing the flow along the creek’s south branch, a sub-watershed of just 47 square miles with its headwaters atop the Manitoba Escarpment west of Miami.
Those efforts brought researchers, who first looked at the effectiveness of the dams in reducing peak flows, then sediment loading, and, more recently, how farming is affecting water quality.
Data researchers collected on this watershed is now being put to use in other ways, specifically by scientists seeking ways to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into Lake Winnipeg.
The research has revealed some surprises — most of the sediment in the creek comes from stream bank erosion, not farmers’ fields — and some very precise and useful data. For example, snow accounts for just 25 per cent of the precipitation in the watershed, but 80 per cent of run-off. The dissolved phosphorus from the run-off comes from wooded areas and pastures as well as forage fields and cropland. And more phosphorus comes from no-till fields than tilled ones.
The Tobacco Creek stop in late August was part of a week-long Lake Winnipeg Basin workshop organized for students and young professionals by the Canadian Water Network. Most are working on their masters or PhDs or are fairly new in their water management careers.
“The purpose of the week is to expose that group to the broad spectrum of perspectives and challenges of water management,” said Bernadette Conant, executive director of the 12-year-old network, which connects centres of excellence in water-related research.
Tobacco Creek is a long way from P.E.I., but there are some common issues, said Simon Courtenay, co-ordinator for the Northumberland Straight Environmental Monitoring Partnership.
“We’re trying to do something very much like what they’re trying to do in Tobacco Creek (with monitoring water quality),” said Courtenay, who also works for the Department of Oceans and Fisheries and in the University of New Brunswick’s biology department.
“There’s a lot of concern about the Northumberland Strait and the declining quality of the fishery and the environment.”
As in the Tobacco Creek watershed, his group views community involvement as crucial to tackling water issues.
“Agriculture is a big part of the solutions we’re looking at right now,” Courtenay said.
“Certainly we need them to be at the table and we need to be working with them and have the kind of relationship that has been successful here in Manitoba.”
That aspect of the Tobacco Creek initiative also impressed Thomas Dyck, a PhD candidate at Wilfred Laurier University who is working in Ontario’s Grand River watershed near Kitchener-Waterloo.
“I don’t think we can solve all of these challenges by ourselves,” said Dyck. “We need to work at involving all actors in the decision-making.”
Tobacco Creek, Grand River, and Northumberland Strait were three of six projects (chosen out of 29 applications) awarded research funding by the watershed network in 2011. The network is providing researchers at the universities of New Brunswick and Saskatchewan with $600,000 of funding over three years to monitor and measure the effects of improved farming practices on water quality. That money is being matched with in-kind support bringing the total investment to $1.3 million.
What impressed the expert panel adjudicating the funding applications about Tobacco Creek was the local support and commitment of the watershed’s partners, Conant said.
“I think they were impressed with the ability to build in all the past data they had.”
It’s expected this latest funding will trigger more so Tobacco Creek will continue to add to our understanding of watersheds and how to protect them.