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New flood realities demand long-term solutions

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Climate change now influences Manitoba's economic future. Excess water, especially in the southwest, affects the entire economy as it works its way through Manitoba.

In the past four years, Manitoba has experienced two major floods. This year, however, is the first one caused by spring and summer rain on saturated soils.

Economic impacts are overwhelming, and due to get worse. Flood relief costs spiral, losses from reduced productivity will be orders of magnitude higher. Insurance costs rise. Beyond agriculture, commerce and infrastructure, prime recreation areas have suffered serious damage, affecting tourism and local economic activity.

Manitoba Hydro uses Lake Winnipeg like a battery, storing energy in the form of upstream water available for generation later. Even with Hydro managing the lake within its licence limits, there has been serious damage to recreational areas, beaches, waterfronts and marshes from unseasonably higher water and strong winds. If flows are significantly increased out of Lake Manitoba to offset flows through the Portage Diversion, Lake Winnipeg regulation becomes more difficult.

So far, most effort has been directed to emergency response, with some longer-term coincidental improvements made to dikes. Although some projects have solved local impacts, they often transfer flow effects downstream. Threatening farmers on the lower Assiniboine with flooding to save Winnipeg from even greater problems only exacerbates an already contentious relationship between rural and urban populations.

It is encouraging to note Manitoba and Saskatchewan farm organizations recognize this and are prepared to discuss it.

Increased outflow from Lake Winnipeg is essential. Manitoba Hydro benefits as increased volume adds to their capacity to produce more electricity or save water for when needed. Unfortunately, these benefits do not go beyond Hydro. Homes and recreational uses of lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg are seriously impacted, as is water quality.

Extended high water affects marshes, which need variable levels for healthy plants to absorb nutrients that would otherwise facilitate pollution and algae growth.

It is clearly beyond the capacity of Manitoba Hydro, essentially a "hydro generation only" Crown corporation, to effectively manage Lake Winnipeg for multi-purpose benefits beyond hydro production.

Crises like floods generate immediate action, but work should not stop when the water recedes.

Obvious projects include dike completion in impacted communities. But this exacerbates potential damage downstream.

Lake Manitoba needs improved outflow capacity, in concert with similar flow augmentation from there to Lake Winnipeg. First Nations communities and lands in this area also need attention, involving both the federal and provincial governments. In high water years, it makes sense to have increased outflow capacity to keep Lake Winnipeg at more natural levels. Manitoba Hydro could use the potential off-season surplus power to run an electrolysis plant on the Nelson, producing hydrogen for local consumption or shipment to the EU where demand is growing. Manitoba could use hydrogen as a replacement fuel for diesel in farm tractors and combines, thus reducing Manitoba's CO2 emissions.

Clearly, Hydro should not receive a permanent licence to manage Lake Winnipeg levels: instead, a commission involving all stakeholders needs to be established.

A public conversation is needed. The complexity of impacts suggests that individual projects planned behind closed doors will not be adequate. Decision-makers, not all of whom live within Manitoba's borders, need to take part in serious and open consultations.

Flood damage is costly. A mix of initiatives including zoning, one-time compensation, prevention, absorption, diversion, impoundments and on-farm storage could reduce the pace of water flow.

Climate change cannot be addressed in a few months or years. Moving one step at a time makes more sense. A strategy implemented over 25-40 years allows careful consideration of options with a practical timetable for implementation.

The starting point is the conversation needed among all players. Many approaches are available: royal commissions, commissions of inquiry, and major conferences backed by research papers -- to name a few.

Unfortunately, neither the Manitoba nor federal government shows interest in long-term ideas and solutions. If they defer much longer, perhaps Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Business Council of Manitoba, the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities or other interested associations could initiate the exercise, with involvement of organizations outside Manitoba.

A fresh look at all current factors can help establish directions to help decision-makers through the next 25 years. This should help point society in directions to achieve progress, sustainability and well-being, as compared to continuing ad hoc projects that ignore opportunities for Manitoba in a changing world.

Jim Collinson is a management consultant

specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economic and environmental issues.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A11

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