A water crisis isn’t coming. It’s already here.
And unless action is taken, Robert Sandford says the hydrological changes the Lake Winnipeg Basin is experiencing will bankrupt the province.
“More extreme weather events are clearly already a reality,” said the author and adviser to the United Nations Water for Life Decade.
Rising global temperatures have increased the amount of water in the atmosphere, so much so, that atmospheric rivers “are overflowing their cloud banks,” resulting in violent storms and overwhelming downpours, Sandford said during a presentation at the University of Winnipeg.
And while we’ve seen the results of devastating rains in Pakistan and the southern United States, we fail to recognize the impact this weather is having in our own backyard, he said.
“Spring flooding has been increasing over the last decade,” said Sandford, adding the Great Plains may have crossed over into a new hydrological state.
Flooding in Manitoba cost the province $1 billion in 2011, and another $1 billion in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, he said, adding more such events are likely.
“The risk economically is that people of the region will not be able to afford both things — dealing with reoccurring disasters and addressing their causes,” Sandford said. “Parts of this region are not going to be habitable and the costs of ongoing flood damage may reach a magnitude that could easily bankrupt Manitoba.”
But it’s not just the weather.
“Draining up to 90 per cent of our wetlands has caused a big problem… there is no storage for the water and no filtration,” said Sandford.
The results have been devastating to Lake Winnipeg with algae blooms covering as many as 15,000 square kilometres, and eutrophication and cyanotoxins thousands of times higher than in 1990 because nutrients are rushing off farmland and city streets directly into waterways, he said.
The cost of restoring the lake is yet another price tag associated with ecological change, as is the price for fixing bridges, roads and water treatment plants damaged by severe weather, he said.
But there is still hope, if action is taken now, he added.
“We need to bring the Lake Winnipeg Basin back under control before it is no longer possible to do so,” said Sandford.
That includes protecting remaining wetlands, reforming drainage rules, and compensating farmers to the ecological services they provide, he said.
“I can’t see any other way.”
Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said he agrees.
“We have to move to a new level of collaboration,” he said. “If (farmers) are going to provide greater wetlands, they have to be compensated rightly for that.”
Although work to restore wetlands is ongoing, they are being destroyed at 10 times the rate of restoration, according to research done by Ducks Unlimited.
“It dispels the illusion that we in Canada are careful stewards of our water,” said University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy.