In the last four years, Winnipeg's famed elm canopy has lost 21,606 trees.
And at the rate Dutch elm disease is spreading throughout the city that has the largest urban population of elm trees in North America, Winnipeg's leafy cover could be on borrowed time.
"Imagine what your city would look like if those trees were gone," said Trees Winnipeg executive director Kerienne La France. "It would be very barren."
La France's warning came Thursday with the release of a report that recommends the city and province double funding to plant and protect the trees.
The city may not be able to effectively manage Dutch elm disease if it continues to lose more than two per cent of its trees every year, the report said.
Dutch elm disease is caused by a fungus that wilts and kills elm trees and is spread by the elm bark beetle. Once trees are infected, crews must remove them to prevent the beetles from spreading the disease to neighbouring trees.
During the past 37 years, Winnipeg lost less than two per cent of its elms to the disease in an average year. In the last five years, the report said, the city has seen higher rates of Dutch elm disease. It lost 3.46 per cent of its trees in 2011 and more than two per cent in 2012.
Before Dutch elm disease was detected in Winnipeg in 1975, the city had about 275,000 elm trees. Currently, the there are 140,000 elm trees.
La France said the city's elm canopy is unusual because most cities do not have the same kind of leafy tree cover, which provides a buffer from inclement weather and helps cut pollution.
She said few other types of trees can survive and grow in Winnipeg's harsh winter climate and the city would have fewer urban habitats for birds, squirrels and other animals in their absence.
A proposed strategy recommends Winnipeg work with the province to combat the disease, which includes asking the province to reinstate buffer zones in the municipalities of Richot and Springfield and split the cost of tree removal, Elm bark beetle control and tree-planting.
This year, the province contributed $1 million to fighting the disease and the city's spent $2.7 million.
If the city and province both double funding, $7.4 million would be spent annually on Winnipeg's urban elms.
In the 1990s, the province reduced its Dutch elm disease management in Richot and Springfield and has since ceased spray treatments in buffer areas around the city. The report said the reduced program will have a significant impact on the city's ability to protect its elms since areas such as Richot are adjacent to the heaviest Dutch elm infections in Winnipeg.
"If you stop the disease there, there can't be more Dutch elm disease entering the city," said Dave Domke, the city's manager of parks and open spaces.
The strategy recommends the city take an inventory of all elms on private property, expand spraying from river corridors to all American elms in Winnipeg and plant two trees for every elm lost on private property.
Council's public works committee will consider the strategy Monday.
Public works chairman Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) said the city's elm canopy is important to our environment and enhances the quality of life. He said the funding will be embedded in Winnipeg's upcoming budget and he hopes the new strategy will be in place next spring.
Earlier this year, council's public works committee asked the city administration to develop a strategy to protect elm trees from Dutch elm disease.
"I think the vast majority of the credit goes to our citizens," Vandal said.
Wendy Land, who lost a century-old elm in her Wolseley Avenue yard, said she's concerned the city has hinged its new strategy on provincial funding. Land said Winnipeg is responsible for its elm canopy and should pay for it, regardless of what the province decides.
"To say they will not act without the province's partnership is a huge cop out," she said.
La France said most of the city's elm trees are on private property and one of the simplest things homeowners can do is water their tree since weakened trees are more susceptible to Dutch elm disease.
She said her organization launched a neighbourhood watch group in which volunteers keep an eye out for trees with symptoms of the disease. "It's really important that all of us as homeowners start to see ourselves as partners in managing the urban forest because there's a lot we could do," she said.