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Delaying The Drainage

As Manitoba braces for what could be another Flood of the Century a mere 14 years after the last one, the calls are mounting across the province for governments to do something about this province’s ongoing and seasonal excess moisture situation.

It doesn’t help that Manitoba has had significant floods in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2010 as well, or that instead of occurring once or twice in a decade since 1950, floods have become almost an annual event someplace in Manitoba.

On top of last spring’s flood, heavy rains at the end of May drowned 665,000 acres of farmland, the second highest since we saw a million acres in this province go unseeded in 1999. We even had flash floods in October, for gosh sakes, after a so-called “weather bomb” settled over the province with monsoon-like rains and high winds. Much of the province’s farmland entered winter in a saturated state, which has even more ominous implications for the spring.

The Interlake is filled to overflowing, and farmers in the watersheds south of it fear the same. Farmers in the Assiniboine River valley are losing ground and they worry about plans to send more water into the system from Saskatchewan.

OK, so we can generally agree we have too much moisture in Manitoba at the moment. But when it comes to finding solutions, we quickly divide into two camps – those who want more protection (homeowners, communities and farmers) and those who want more drainage (farmers).

It doesn’t help that it is also an election year for the province and perhaps even the country. It becomes far too easy in such times to make political hay out of a problem that is beyond the capacity of a four-year term of office.

In fact, you could argue short-sighted politics was what got us into this whole mess in the first place. The question, “What were they thinking?” comes to mind about the decision to rebuild Fort Garry, the site of present-day Winnipeg, after it was destroyed in the epic 1826 flood.

A second chance to move the province’s main population base to higher ground was ignored in 1881 when the powers-that-be chose Winnipeg instead of Selkirk as the route for the national railway.

So Winnipeg is here and it’s not moving. It needs to be protected. That’s a given. Toward that end, the $65 million the province spent building Duff’s Ditch in the late 1960s and the $665 million we just spent bolstering it is a practical investment. The expanded floodway is expected to protect more than 140,000 homes, over 8,000 businesses and prevent more than $12 billion in damages to the provincial economy in another big flood.

However, the number of other ditch-digging projects around Manitoba carried out on a smaller scale – both legally and illegally – over the past 50 years can’t be so easily justified. In most cases, solving one party’s problem has caused equal or more damage to other parties downstream.

Yet ditch digging, dikes, diversions and even dredging remain popular proposals when discussing Manitoba’s water problems.

We propose adding another D to the list– delay.

The soon-to-be-released Red River Basin report takes a serious look at upstream storage as a means to reduce peak flows on the Red River by 20 per cent.

It’s estimated 885,000 acre-feet of storage, (885,000 acres storing one foot of water), at an estimated cost of $1 billion would be enough to do the job. A 20 per cent reduction in peak flows would be enough to avoid the 1997 dike breach at Grand Forks.

It’s a good idea that should be expanded beyond the Red River watershed.

When it comes to strategies for reducing the flooding potential in the first place, it is harder convincing people to buy in. It takes a long-term commitment from private landholders, who have everything to gain from strategies that simply move that water off their land as quickly as possible.

What if, instead of draining farmland into roadside ditches, every section of land drained into its own central wetland storage, with its release controlled so that the water leaves in an orderly fashion after the peak flows have passed? Alternatively, the farm operators would be free to use the stored water for irrigation or other farm diversification ventures.

As ongoing research taking place within the Deerwood Soil and Water Management Association membership shows, there are benefits to small-scale water retention that go beyond minimizing the damage caused by downstream flooding. These storage areas serve as a nutrient sink, helping to preserve the water quality.

That alone justifies public investment into making this happen. But it also requires landowners to take land out of annual crop production.

It might be a net benefit over the long term, because as sure as it’s wet, it’s bound to be dry again in the future. Keeping a few puddles around might be a good thing. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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