Producers in the Assiniboine River Basin will be able to check the finer details of water flow for their farms, much as they might check the weather, in the not-so-distant future.
The federal government has slated $1.1 million for the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA) to develop a virtual forecasting tool for producers to predict and plan around water flows and weather events.
Municipalities and other groups are already able to test the results of different situations and land management strategies through the MFGA’s Aquanty model. Now, the association hopes to bring detailed, real-time water forecasting for farmers.
The project is the second phase of an initiative from the MFGA, building on the Aquanty hydrological model launched in 2018.
The MFGA embarked on the Aquanty model, which mimics how land and water might interact given a specific scenario or land change (such as a hypothetical riparian area forage buffer) in 2016. The project turned to research company Aquanty Inc. and its HydroGeoSphere software, to develop the model, which covered different levels of analysis for the wider river basin, sub-basins and a detailed view of one Manitoba watershed.
That work will be foundational for the new forecasting tool, which will also be built through Aquanty Inc., the MFGA has said.
Once launched, the tool will provide seven-day forecasts for soil moisture, groundwater and surface water flow, as well as predict how different management strategies might affect those outcomes in the Assiniboine River Basin.
“It’s a tool that we can use to take and project what’s going to happen,” MFGA chair Larry Wegner said, noting that the tool will allow producers to shift variables according to their circumstance.
“You can change what your upland situations are, your downland situation; predict possible flows of creeks and rivers — what might run off. It has various levels to it and, as we’ve worked more into this project, we find more and more things we can do with it,” he said.
The federal government argues the tool, once launched, will allow producers to better manage risk around extreme weather.
The announcement comes as most of the province remains in drought conditions.
Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary to the minister of environment and climate change (Canada Water Agency), tied the funding to efforts combating climate change.
Duguid described grasslands as a “powerful ally” in those efforts.
“Farmers are on the front lines of climate change,” he said. “They’re the first to feel its effects and, as we know in this part of the world, one of the consequences of climate change is that droughts, storms, flooding and other extreme climate events are getting more frequent.”
Duguid pointed to the lack of moisture and late frost seen this spring and summer in Manitoba.
The project draws on the same funding stream that contributed to the initial Aquanty model.
Breaking down the details
That model will still be operational after the forecasting tool launches, according to Duncan Morrison, MFGA executive director.
In fact, he said, that initial model is “probably five years in front of itself” in terms of its potential utilization.
The model is set up so that groups, organizations and various levels of government may request specific scenarios to be run.
Producers could draw on the general knowledge of management practice impacts highlighted by that first phase, Morrison said. He added, however, that Phase 1 “needs the support of governments, land managers, conservation groups, watershed districts to understand the ability of this model. To look at how, maybe, different land use management or changes or restorations or retentions actually help provide some kind of resilience or buffer to climatic events.”
In contrast, he said, Phase 2 will now bring real-time insights and direct access at the producer’s level. Aquanty Inc. will be building real-time models for each of the 15 sub-watersheds in the Assiniboine River Basin.
Finer details of the forecasting tool are still being worked out.
“We’re definitely going to work closely with producers,” Morrison said. “We’re going to talk to other agricultural groups and we’re going to figure out, you know, whether we decide to put it in on a subscription, whether we want to put it in on a partnership, how exactly can we make sure that the most amount of producers get access to this tool?”
The MFGA may yet have to tease out financial and logistical plans for long-term maintenance, he said.
The forage association has already made significant gains towards the tool’s launch, Morrison said, noting that development started in September 2020.
The association hopes to have the tool up and running on the MFGA’s website by mid-2022.
Morrison also said that the applications for this type of project need not stop at the Assiniboine River Basin. As a company, Aquanty Inc. has a sister project in southern Ontario, while other areas of the country have expressed interest.
In Manitoba, Morrison said, it is not unreasonable to imagine similar applications in places like the Red River Valley, where water flows are often top of mind and where there is both strong watershed district presence and native prairies in the eastern part of the region.
“We see the work in the Assiniboine River Basin as being transferable, especially with the focus on water,” he said. “We believe that a similar-type modelling system could be and should be considered in the Red River Valley and some of the water challenges that producers are affected with there.”
The association planned to gauge researcher and industry interest on that topic during a virtual University of Manitoba event in late June.