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Making Friends With The Enemy

You can’t help but marvel at Manitoba’s capacity for fighting water.

It’s become part of who we are as a province – Herculean efforts of people, money, sand and machines against the forces of nature. As we went to press this week, it was not clear who would win this latest round.

This province is among the best in the world when it comes to knowing how to get rid of water – and fast.

Agriculture, a key economic driver in this province, was only made possible by a huge commitment to drainage. Through generations of flood fighting, we’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge, a vast network of protective infrastructure, some of the best in the business when it comes to forecasting and a populace that, if truth be told, finds a certain catharsis from rolling up our sleeves and pitching sandbags.

Just as the stories last week of farmers and ranchers caught in the crossfire were heart wrenching, the tales from the front lines of sandbagging were an inspiration.

But the costs from this one-in-300-year flood are high and continuing to mount.

2011 could well exceed the 1997 flood, which cost $500 million to fight and is estimated to have cost the province in total $3.5 billion.

Less measurable is the cost in human terms, the tremendous stress on people whose homes are threatened, the cattle producers whose herds must be relocated and the farmers whose land may go unseeded. Or the predicament of elected officials faced with difficult decisions to allow some to be harmed so more can be spared.

In the end, we’ll all be paying the price.

As provincial officials have promised a review of this year’s floods with a view to improving mitigation in the future, there are niggling questions rising to the surface.

Why has water, perhaps the world’s most precious natural resource, become our enemy? Why are we in such a hurry for it to move to the ocean?

It’s partly because we live at the bottom of what used to be Lake Agassiz. The topography here is prone to accumulating water over a widely dispersed area.

Secondly, we’ve received by most accounts an incredible amount of extra precipitation of late, so much so that it has filled lakes to overflowing, recharged acquifers and saturated the soil in a way that recent generations have never seen.

Thirdly, we are in a period of more volatile weather. Whether you subscribe to the global warming theory or not, it’s hard to make the argument that weather patterns of late have been normal.

Those are things we can’t control. But there are factors contributing to our water wars that we can do something about.

Economic pressures to squeeze every last acre into production have drained 70 per cent of the wetlands in Western Canada. Those sloughs and potholes helped keep water out of the drainage system, while providing a sink for nutrients. The more water that left the wetlands, the more effort that went into “improving” drainage. When we’re all trying to flush at the same time, there are obvious repercussions for the system’s carrying capacity.

Research bears this out. Studies on the Broughton Creek watershed in western Manitoba concluded drainage over nearly four decades increased the peak flows from the watershed by 37 per cent and the stream’s total stream flow by 62 per cent.

Research conducted by the Red River Basin Commission estimates a delayed release of holding water back and storing water on the land could reduce peak flows on the Red River by 20 per cent – enough to spare Fargo the cost of a Winnipeg-style floodway.

Small dams on the South Tobacco Creek watershed in Manitoba are estimated to reduce peak flows pouring off the Manitoba Escarpment by as much as 90 per cent.

Hank Venema, who heads the Water Innovation Centre at the Institute for Sustainable Development, believes that just as Manitoba has become a leader at flood fighting, it can now lead the world in developing strategies that intertwine flood mitigation with improved nutrient management and economic development.

Under the IISD model, landholders are provided with incentives to store water through an ecological goods and service program. But they aren’t taking land out of production to store water. They are growing and harvesting biomass crops, such as perennial grasses. They are recycling nutrients, which are soaked up by biomass crops, and thus helping with the chore of cleaning up Lake Winnipeg.

They are reducing greenhouse gases, because those biomass crops displace coal used for heating hog barns. And they are creating economic spinoffs that could be in the billions – not to mention reducing the bill for sandbags, soldiers and dikes.

The Hoop and Holler cut is an ad hoc strategy to use farmland for temporary water storage.

Rather than it being remembered as a last-ditch gamble to thwart the enemy, we hope it’s the opening for a much broader policy discussion that leads to a truce. [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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