Retaining water on farmland: Touted as critical to flood-mitigation strategy

A summit on surface water management told that, when properly done, storing water on agricultural land creates win-win situations

Storing water on farmland is one of the big ideas being floated as politicians, water experts and farmers search for ways to minimize future flood damage.

The province has announced, once last June and again in February, plans to develop a province-wide surface water management strategy, and the process kicked off with a day-long summit hosted by the Manitoba Water Council earlier this month.

“We would have liked to have started it sooner, but realize that 2011 kept government busy reacting to the flooding situation,” said Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“I am really pleased to see so many stakeholders participating and that the minister (Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh) is here — not just to make opening remarks, but he has stayed to take notes and listen and participate.”

Finding ways to minimize the impact of flooding will be challenging, Chorney said.

“Farmers are of course conflicted because they want to have drainage as a tool, but they also realize that drainage causes downstream impacts,” he said.

If farmers are required to store water on farmland during years of high run-off, they have to be compensated, said Chorney, noting that is already done in Dufferin via tax credits.

There are several successful projects in place south of the border, said Henry Venema, director of natural and social capital for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The North Ottawa Project on Minnesota’s Rabbit River Watershed has successfully created multi-use water retention on agricultural land, he said.

“The people upstream are quite happy because drainage has actually improved for them and the water has somewhere to go,” said Venema. “The downstream people are also very happy because they are no longer flooded.”

And the farmers? They’re happy, too, said Venema, as they are able to lease back land sold for the retention project, and are compensated in years the land doesn’t drain in time for planting.

“If you look at the landscape differently and look at organized storage for flood waters, and for nutrient management and for conventional agriculture in most years, you can create a new system that doesn’t have losers,” he said.

This system would work in Manitoba, said Venema, pointing to retention projects already in place such as the Tobacco Creek model and Lizard Lake, as well as work at the Netley-Libau Marsh.

Manitobans need to change their attitude in regard to wetlands, which not only provide flood prevention but also enhance biodiversity, sequester greenhouse gases, generate eco-tourism opportunities, and prevent nutrient loading in waterways, said Greg Bruce of Ducks Unlimited.

“Unfortunately, we — society, Manitobans — haven’t done a good job of valuing the role and services that wetlands provide, and as such we’ve lost many of our wetlands,” he said.

Bruce called for the province to act quickly.

“In a year or two, we need to be at a point where we’ve got some idea of where we’re going as a province and what kind of things need to be done — what kind of investments need to be made, what kind of programs and policies are needed — so we can get on with some of the decision-making,” said Bruce.

That view was shared by Venema.

“It’s similar to the old adage, ‘When is the best time to plant a tree? Fifty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? The second-best time is now’” Venema said.

“The best time to have done distributed storage was decades ago, but the second-best time is right now.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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