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Managing Excess Water Should Be About More Than Drainage

As we pack the machinery away in the back of the shed for winter, I can’t help but think there is one tool that almost every farmer has stored away somewhere in the bottom of his tool box. Known as the crescent wrench (often with several other expletives), it’s the tool that nobody wants to admit they own, but everyone grabs in a crunch.

“No, not that one. I wanted the metric crescent wrench.” Yes, often maligned and joked about, the lowly crescent wrench has a reputation for making do when looking for the proper wrench isn’t an option, but never doing the job quite right. Tools can be like that. Either you get the right tool for the job, or the scraped knuckles and rounded parts make the job much bigger and more painful than it ever needed to be.

Water management can be like that as well. The tool box might have several tools in it, but if we persist in grabbing the handy one that does a mediocre job, then we miss the opportunity to do the job right. Sometimes it pays to make sure you have the proper tool for the job.

Anyone involved with water in Manitoba can tell you that the Winnipeg Floodway was built in response to the 1950 flood, but many people forget that it was not the only response. Additional water was also held back out of the flood plain by the dam at Rosser that created the Lake of the Prairies. Flood waters have also been diverted away from the convergence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers by the diversion at Portage that takes high flows directly into Lake Manitoba.

The 1950 flood was a major catastrophe that required a three-pronged approach that included retention, diversion and drainage. It was a major problem that required a major solution with multiple approaches and interdepartmental disciplines to make it work. It required a level of co-operation from multiple levels of government that we rarely see today.

Fast forward to the last month where stories have crossed my desk about the rising water levels in both Devils Lake in North Dakota and the Shoal Lakes north of Winnipeg. Miles apart, but with similar issues – increased drainage coming into the lake, no natural drains out, and obtuse weather patterns adding to the rising lake levels.

Now, I know we live in a part of the world that is blessed

with a multitude of fresh water sources, but isn’t that still a resource to value? Every single living person on this planet needs water. Every plant we grow needs water. Every head of livestock we produce needs water. And yet, what do we do with an excess? Get rid of it.

I can’t imagine a miner in South Africa deciding he had too many diamonds, and that it was time to get rid of some. I can’t imagine a well driller in Alberta deciding that they had too much oil, and that it was time to get rid of some. Why is that with one of the most commonly needed resources on the face of the earth, we can’t utilize it? Utilization… there is another tool at the bottom of the box.

I fully sympathize with the people at the heart of these disasters. I can’t imagine the grief of losing one’s home to flood waters. I do know what it’s like to try to farm when the land gets too wet, but not for two, three, or four years in a row. These people need answers.

Proper water management should not be a knee-jerk reaction to the latest drought, or the latest flood. It needs to be a methodical, intensive process that acknowledges many disciplines. It can help us save water for times of need, by letting us store excess water when there is plenty.

Retaining water in upper reaches of a system can help keep the downstream flows from reaching disastrous levels. We may also have to accept that there are areas where we have tried to farm, that would be better left for storage. Diverting water away from sensitive areas can help us to keep flows at manageable levels. Utilization, for irrigation or other domestic uses, can help us to convert water into a more valuable commodity. Drainage is only one tool.

Maybe if the Shoal Lakes were inside the Perimeter at election time, they would get more attention, but in the meantime we need to look beyond the crescent wrench. We need to consider all the right tools for the job. Ultimately it is a very large problem, that requires a complex solution.

The question to be asked is, “Do we still have the imagination, the inclination, and the commitment to solve the problem?” Les McEwan farms

near Altamont.

REAR VIEW:Our focus on getting rid of excess water blurs the reality that water is a precious resource.

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