In a symbolic nod to the past, officials here used an old coal shovel to turn the sod on a project many see as a new future of renewable energy and renewed water quality.
After decades of failed attempts to drain a picturesque valley located about five km southeast of Holland so that farmers could use it for hay and pasture, local landowners working through the La Salle Redboine Conservation District, have opted to turn it back to the cattails — at least for now.
“We really are looking at a cattail farm,” said Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Macintosh from the lookout point and site of a planned interpretative centre on the north side of the valley.
The Pelly Lake Water Management Area will use two water-retention structures to purposely hold back water in the spring to backflood the area, similar to the Lizard Lake Ducks Unlimited project near Manitou. Approximately 1,200 acre-feet of water, a volume equivalent to one-third of the Stephenfield Lake Reservoir located to the south, will be retained. The water will be released gradually beginning in June of each year to act as a late-season recharge for that reservoir as well as other downstream reservoirs.
But there is a long list of other spinoff benefits associated with this project — flood mitigation, nutrient removal, wetland enhancement, water storage, climate change adaptation, habitat protection and public education — not to mention the potential for renewable energy production from harvesting cattails for biofuel.
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That’s why it’s been generating a buzz in the conservation community and how the conservation district was able to enlist support from three levels of government and at least three non-government conservation organizations for the $300,000 plan.
“I think we have here so many dividends from this investment. Yes it is about water retention and ensuring that we better manage the flood risk; it also then means we are better managing the drought risk,” Mackintosh said.
But it is the potential for projects like this one to retain and recycle nutrients that could become its most important role. An estimated 5,000 kg of phosphorus will be removed from the water flowing through the project annually.
That is phosphorus that would otherwise be on a one-way trip to Lake Winnipeg, Macintosh said.
“It costs money, increasingly so. We are bringing it all the way from India and China and we’ve got phosphorus right here that we’re flushing away to our great lake where it is making a mess when it could be on the land growing crops,” he said.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development has been conducting a pilot project harvesting and baling the cattails, burning them as biofuel, and collecting the phosphorus from the residue.
Harold Purkess, a local landowner and municipal councillor said he first became interested in the concept after touring the Lizard Lake project. “I could see the incredible difference it made to the vegetation there, and couldn’t see any reason why it couldn’t work here,” the retired cattle and PMU farmer said. Farmers in the Lizard Lake area saw significant increases in forage production as a result of the backflooding.
Purkess is one of six landowners, including the RM of Victoria, that have allowed conservation easements on land that will be used to temporarily store the water.
While some landowners in the area were initially hesitant to sign agreements that limited how they could manage their land, Purkess said the benefits far outweigh the costs.
“We really don’t lose the use of it. We can still use it as pasture, we can still cut hay on it, it’s just that it can never be broken or farmed cultivated,” he said. “I guess the best outcome we could hope for would be for the native grasses to come back and the cattails and the rushes disappear.”
“But even if that doesn’t happen, if we can add value to these cattails for the biofuel market, it is a huge plus for the area,” he said.
Conservation district manager Justin Reid said the long-term objective is to push back the cattails through repeated flooding so that native grasslands can be restored. “Whether they are harvesting cattails or taking the hay off for livestock, it becomes a phosphorus cycle instead of a phosphorus drain,” he said.
The conservation easements farmers signed with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC) protect more than 850 acres of wetland and riparian habitat.
“The appraised value of those agreements is $175,000,” said MHHC chief executive officer Tim Sopuck, noting that is over and above the project costs. “That is the landowners’ contribution in the form of donated agreements.”
“They are basically conceding that they will never be able to annually crop this land — which is an interesting conception given all the climate uncertainties,” he said. “It is a significant concession. A lot of producers do think long-term.”