Holland, Man. -- In a symbolic nod to the past, officials here used an old coal shovel to turn the sod May 30 on a project many see as a new future of renewable energy and improved water quality.
After decades of failed attempts to drain a picturesque valley located about five kilometres southeast of Holland so farmers could use it for hay and pasture, local landowners working through the La Salle Redboine Conservation District have opted to turn it back to the cattails -- at least for now.
"We really are looking at a cattail farm," said Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh from the lookout point and site of a planned interpretative centre on the north side of the valley.
Construction started last week on the Pelly's Lake Watershed Management Project, which will use two water-retention structures to hold back water in the spring to backflood the valley with about 1,200-acre feet of water, a volume equivalent to one-third of the Stephenfield Lake Reservoir located to the south. The water will be released gradually beginning in June each year and act as a late-season recharge for the reservoir, which supplies the region with potable water, as well as other downstream reservoirs.
Historically speaking, the term "water management" in this province has been code for drainage, a process that typically creates upstream winners and downstream losers, whether they are landowners on the receiving end of excess water or Lake Winnipeg suffering from an influx of nutrients and sediment.
Projects that keep water on the land turn the win-lose water-management scenario into win-win with a host of spinoff benefits ranging from flood mitigation, nutrient recycling, wetland enhancement, water storage, climate change adaptation, habitat protection to public education -- not to mention the potential for renewable energy production.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development has been conducting a pilot project harvesting and baling cattails, burning them as biofuel and collecting phosphorus from the residue. A local Hutterite colony is looking into what investments it needs to take advantage of the local fuel source.
An estimated 5,000 kilograms of phosphorus can be recycled annually from this project alone. This is phosphorus that would otherwise be on a one-way trip out to sea through Lake Winnipeg.
"(Phosphorus) costs money, increasingly so. We are bringing it all the way from India and China and we've got phosphorus right here that we're flushing away to our great lake, where it is making a mess when it could be on the land growing crops," Macintosh said.
It is also hoped the managed water flows will, over time, encourage fewer cattails and more native forages for local hay farmers. Removing the phosphorus through hay and feeding it back to livestock maintains a closed-loop nutrient cycle.
"Whether they are harvesting cattails or taking the hay off for livestock, it becomes a phosphorus cycle instead of a phosphorus drain," said conservation district manager Justin Reid.
That's why this project has been generating buzz in the conservation community. It's also how the conservation district was able to enlist support from three levels of government and three conservation organizations, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp., the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and the International Institute for Sustainable Development -- for the $300,000 plan. That's in addition to getting six landowners in the area to agree to a long-term conservation agreement for a total 850 acres valued at about $175,000.
While some were initially hesitant to sign on, area landowner and municipal Coun. Howard Purkess said the benefits far outweigh the costs. "We really don't lose the use of it. We can still use it as pasture, we can still cut hay on it; it's just that it can never be broken or farmed cultivated," he said.
Most hope they will get more hay out of the deal. "But even if that doesn't happen, if we can add value to these cattails for the biofuel market, it is a huge plus for the area," he said.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com