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Editorial: Less water, more grass

A few hundred thousand here, a few million there. Manitoba’s PC government is rightly or wrongly getting plenty of attention for its trimming of the health-care and education systems. But it’s time for this government to start saving some real money.

The Red River Basin Commission recently held meetings to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 “Flood of the Century,” and the presentations reminded of just how traumatic and expensive it was. They outlined some of the steps that have been taken to reduce future damage such as a bigger floodway and higher dikes, but emphasized that there’s still a big portion of the strategy that hasn’t been addressed — reducing or preventing the floods in the first place.

The 2011 flood in western Manitoba cost an estimated $1 billion, and the 2014 version another $250 million, costs that dwarf, for example, the $6.5 million that Education Minister Ian Wishart said would be saved by cancelling plans to build two school gyms in Winnipeg.

Readers will remember that Wishart is a former KAP president and one of the two architects of the Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS) program, which would compensate farmers for preserving wetlands rather than draining them for cropland.

When ALUS was developed, there was more interest in saving wetlands for ducks rather than for flood prevention, and the other ALUS architect was Jonathan Scarth, who at the time was vice-president of the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. Today, Scarth is Premier Brian Pallister’s principal secretary.

Having two such high-profile team members responsible for this idea gives Pallister the opportunity to start collecting some major brownie points, if not eventually taking credit for a legacy of finally developing a long-term water management policy. In the past, that policy has essentially been “more and deeper ditches.” That worked for a while, but now, especially during this long wet cycle, at least as many people are being harmed as helped by uncontrolled drainage. Given that the provincial PCs are so strong in rural areas, they have nothing to lose by taking this on.

Meanwhile, taxpayers have a lot to gain, especially if water can be managed to take the peak off future floods. But this also meshes with other issues facing the government and facing farmers.

One is the health of Lake Winnipeg. Work by University of Manitoba soil scientist David Lobb and others has made it clear that agriculture’s contribution to the problem is not nutrients from hog barns or fertilizer — it’s the water carrying them, including from natural sources. If you control the water, you control the problem. Their work has shown that only a relatively small area of a field is needed to store water and take the peak off drainage flow, or used for irrigation in dry years.

Then there’s Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler’s proposal for Manitoba to double its beef cattle herd. That will need more grass and forage land, which is not subject to the same panic to get drained in time to seed an annual crop every year. Holding back water means maintaining or restoring sloughs around which cattle don’t mind manoeuvring, unlike humans with their seeding and harvest machinery.

We might need that forage, and the extra cattle to eat it. Herbicide resistance is becoming more serious, and farmers are running out of chemical- or herbicide-tolerant options. It’s becoming apparent that introducing forages to the rotation is one way, if not the only way, to break the cycle. Every grain farmer doesn’t have to go back to cattle, but they could make arrangements with neighbours to exchange land or forage.

That has implications for business risk management programs, which are now under review. It’s likely to consider whether support should recognize economically and agronomically sustainable practices, and that could include under crop insurance.

Some of the most exciting agricultural research in this province is already underway through the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiative in Brandon. There’s a real opportunity to build on that work with a big-picture initiative. Former Premier Doug Campbell took much credit for the legacy of rural electrification. Duff Roblin still gets regular thanks every time Winnipeg gets saved by the Red River Floodway.

Premier Brian Pallister has the opportunity to be remembered for another major achievement, which is developing the comprehensive water-management policy that has eluded this province almost since the first settlers said, “Thanks for the free land, but how do you seed it in spring?” It’s not a bad package: lowering flooding costs, cleaning up Lake Winnipeg, reducing soil erosion, improving weed control and producing more tasty grass-feed beef.

Oh, and a few more ducks. We’re waiting.

John Morriss is a former editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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