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Water strategy helps farmers, conservation

Good for wetlands, fields

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It's rare for any government making an announcement on policy to have all the main stakeholders supporting the process right from the start -- especially when it involves water.

But while the province's new drainage and surface-water management strategy doesn't give farmers or conservation groups -- often polar opposites on these issues -- everything they wanted, they are both onside with the plan.

For example, the proposed regulations will make it easier for farmers to drain low spots in their fields, but much harder to convert wetlands into annual crop production. It may seem like a nuanced distinction, and it will undoubtedly make many in the farming community nervous.

But there are compelling economic and social benefits behind this approach. It is farmers and rural Manitobans, after all, who are on the front lines of excess-water woes. This year's unseeded acreage, which officials estimate will be close to a million acres, is a case in point.

Newly released Saskatchewan-based research on the links between wetland drainage and flooding has confirmed wetland drainage as a "major factor in increasing Prairie streamflows and increasing flooding in wet years."

"Draining wetlands adds permanent surface connections, reducing the ability for wetlands to store surface water and increasing the land area contributing to stream flow when snowmelt runoff is generated," the long-term monitoring and computer-modelling study by the University of Saskatchewan Centre for Hydrology says. "The land area contributing to streamflow increases in wet conditions and decreases in droughts because of the changing storage of water in wetlands."

Earlier research conducted here in Manitoba also found wetland drainage contributed significantly to flushing nutrients into streams and lakes.

Researchers found wetland drainage in the Yorkton, Sask., area since 1958 increased the 2011 flood peak by 32 per cent and the 2011 yearly streamflow by 29 per cent. Continued drainage of those wetlands would increase the peak flows in future flood events by 78 per cent and the yearly volume by 32 per cent over 2011.

Restoring those wetlands to the 1958 levels would decrease those peak flows by 26 per cent.

That's not going to happen. Once land has been "improved" or "developed," which is how our society rationalizes valuing only those things we can draw revenue from, there are currently no mechanisms for returning it to natural services.

But these new proposals will at least stem the losses and form a basis for a more co-ordinated and strategic approach. Wetlands are classified on a scale from one -- a low spot that's dry most of the time -- through five -- a permanent water body or marsh.

The province is lessening its oversight over how landowners manage classes 1 and 2, but will now restrict drainage of class 3, which represents seasonal wetlands that dry out in some years, along with classes 4 and 5. Ducks Unlimited estimates there are 275,000 acres of class 3 wetlands left in Manitoba and a total of 1.42 million acres in classes 3 to 5.

If these regulations go ahead, developers who want to drain these wetlands will have to replace them by a ratio of three to one. That will consist of either finding another spot on the farm or purchasing wetland "credits" so wetlands can be developed elsewhere, preferably within the same watershed.

Protecting class 3 wetlands comes at a cost -- land that will never be developed for farming. But if it reduces the developed acres left unseeded due to flooding, farmers could come out ahead.

Scott Stephens, director of regional operations for the Prairies with Ducks Unlimited Canada, said those wetlands provide flood storage that is the equivalent of 11 times the current capacity of Lake of the Prairies.

Combined with the role they play as carbon and nutrient sinks, the net-benefit ratio is nearly nine to one, or $490 per acre per year. No one loses on that.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 B6

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