Those who attended the meeting in Regina that established the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative deserve credit for their effort. Their determination to come up with a plan to address land and water issues within the basin should be welcomed by all, but the obstacles they face are many.
The biggest by far is the poor record of co-operation among affected governments over the past decade.
Western Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan, as well as North Dakota, are hit hardest. The Canadian government shows no interest in co-operative endeavours, yet its involvement is critical, as is that of the U.S. government. Co-operation among the affected provinces and states is also essential. As Manitoba sits at the bottom of the Nelson River watershed, it is the recipient of water entering from several jurisdictions, including Alberta (snowmelt from the east side of the Rockies enters Manitoba via the Saskatchewan River, and potentially the Qu’Appelle). Yet, the recent Manitoba throne speech mentions only individual projects; no plan, no vision beyond vague support for the idea of the Assiniboine Initiative.
Clearly, certain construction projects such as dams and channels are needed, both within Manitoba and elsewhere. But it doesn’t end there. Land use zoning will be important to facilitate a return of some currently farmed lands to riparian conditions, as drainage works of the past have contributed to water moving downstream faster than “normal.”
Land use actions, particularly bush removal and pothole drainage, exacerbate heavy rainfall impacts. Consequently, flood probability tables are woefully inadequate under changing climate conditions.
The basic overall system must also recognize the public responsibility to fairly compensate farmers and other landowners for their contribution to the public good where their aspects of their lands use are adjusted.
Recent large low-pressure weather systems from the American south and southwest carried substantial moisture up to the Red River Valley. Given that low-pressure systems turn counter-clockwise, areas to the west receive northeast winds ahead of the centre. From Winnipeg (783 feet above sea level at the airport), the land rises to 2,074 feet at Carlyle. Saturated air cools about 1.5 C per 1,000 feet as it rises. Given that it’s already saturated, it will drop more moisture as it rises.
A further potential complication could derive from carbon particles expelled into the air from flaring off natural gas at oil wells in the Bakken formation in southwest Manitoba, southeastern Saskatchewan, and parts of North Dakota and Montana. These carbon particles could become nuclei for moisture formation, creating raindrops in addition to those occurring naturally. The extent to which carbon particles escape into the air depends on the effectiveness of the flaring (about 0.5 billion cubic feet per day), and the regulations and subsequent inspections in each jurisdiction. Research is needed on this matter, as well as regulations associated with flaring (if it is to be allowed at all).
Where does it end?
There’s also the question of where the Assiniboine ends. Is it where it enters the Red? During flood stages, more than 75 per cent of its flow enters Lake Manitoba, and slowly but surely it floods Lake St. Martin and downstream to Lake Winnipeg. Its waters eventually enter Hudson Bay, so whatever happens to the Assiniboine has significant downstream consequences.
Flooding is one problem; pollution is another. Downstream lakes are the recipients of nutrients that could better be absorbed upstream.
The advantage of the new Assiniboine River Basin Initiative organization is that it can take a complete overview and identify the components needing attention.
Somehow, the Assiniboine Basin Initiative needs to establish that vision, sort through the jurisdictional array to identify the relevant actors, and then convince them that doing their job in co-operation with the others will lead to objectives being achieved faster and more efficiently.
Governments seem to be too busy trying to survive in the short term, ignoring the reality that a long-term vision with strategically timed projects is what is needed to avert future disasters. Residents of the affected areas can’t wait any longer for governments to act. By forming this new organization they could well be on the road to much-needed solutions to climate issues (flooding, land use and pollution) that have been their preoccupation for the past four years.