There’s lots of speculation these days over when the viewing public will grow tired of the so-called “reality TV” phenomenon, when ordinary people open up their lives for the world to watch while they choose a life partner, sing in a glorified karaoke contest, vote someone off the island or eat weird stuff for cash.
Of course, what we don’t see is the behind-the-scenes drama, the preparation work or the psychological aftermath of laying it all out on the line, only to come up short. If the public is starting to tune out, the message hasn’t reached television producers, because there are more of these programs filling the air space all the time.
One thing we see all too frequently, however, is a phenomenon we’ve come to call “reality floods” — the regular, if not annual, flooding that’s coming at us once again this year, as sure as springtime on the Prairies.
We also know that this is the kind of event — with enough drama, heartache and high stakes to make the reality TV producers salivate — in which rural Manitobans are wholeheartedly tired of being cast in a starring role.
People “out here” can grumble all they like about whether the right political party gets elected to power, but when it comes down to minimizing the collateral damage during a flood emergency, no politician is going to choose flooding a major population centre to spare a few sparsely populated rural communities.
So for now and the foreseeable future, the reality is that rural Manitobans live floods. We live the economic damage, the social and emotional cost, the lost productivity, the lingering mess to clean up, the inconvenience and the uncertainty. People in Winnipeg watch floods on TV.
It’s a point worth remembering when discussions turn to things that can be done to reduce both the intensity and frequency of spring flooding. The spotlight is increasingly focusing on agricultural drainage.
While not the sole culprit, there is a general consensus that the push by farmers to get their land cleared of water as quickly as possible in the spring is exacerbating the problems caused when too much water is flushing through the system at once.
Ironically, it is also exaggerating the effects of droughts because with sloughs and wetlands disappearing at what many would say is an alarming rate, there are no reserves left to replenish falling water tables. Farmers who irrigate were struggling last fall to fill their reservoirs from streams that were bone dry in spots.
And to the extent that off-farm drainage carries nutrients and other contaminants with it, it becomes a pollutant that has helped Lake Winnipeg earn its designation as one of the sickest lakes in the world.
It’s fine for farmers to argue that society has a stake in clean water and that farmers alone shouldn’t shoulder the burden of maintaining ecological goods and services. We agree.
But we would be remiss in not pointing out there are two ways of looking at this, and unfortunately, they are polar opposites. The other view holds that it is politically hazardous for governments to get involved with programs that essentially pay an industry not to degrade the environment.
It is also important to keep in mind that governments are generally short of cash these days. The Manitoba and federal governments haven’t finished paying off the last billion-dollar flood yet. Are they ready for another one? How many billion-dollar floods can this province afford before it starts cutting into things like funding for schools and hospitals? Again, we come back to that messy question of choosing between the most good and the least harm.
The saddest part of this whole scenario is that there are demonstrable benefits to both farmers and society from keeping some water on the land — once we get past the short-sighted economics of maximum acres growing a handful of annual crops. There are measurable economic and ecological benefits to rural communities from enterprises such as harvesting cattails for biomass fuel.
The point we are making is that although programs like Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) may have merit, they are a hard sell to governments. And judging from the mounting deficits, farm lobbyists could be waiting a long time before governments come around to their point of view.
In the meantime, it is the rural community, of which farmers are an integral part, that is getting washed away, both physically and figuratively. It’s happening one pasture, one bridge, one family that leaves never to return at a time. Reality bites.