Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Big Pitcher

Nelson River watershed's flood and drought cycle needs a 25-year plan

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Climate change discussions range from outright dismissal as a political invention to belief it is gospel. Most, however, will admit that observed climatic variations are getting kind of weird.

Temperatures have always fluctuated and storms have always occurred. Worldwide, storm damage to crops, structures and shorelines has always been a factor. What seems to have changed, however, is the frequency and severity of these events, and often the apparent bunching of precipitation into a series of substantial storms, compared to more "normal" rain or snowfalls.

Two basic models are used to describe climate change: a theoretical physics model that calculates impacts of "greenhouse gases," and a broader conceptual model that tries to integrate ecological systems (some of which can temper the effects of these gases). Both have their place.

My personal view tends towards the latter model, but respects the first as an important starting point.

The second acknowledges the possibility that although human activities may be behind some of the weird things going on in the world's climate, there is also hope human interventions can significantly temper the results that would otherwise occur. This helps explain why new projections for temperature change into the future have been dropped to 2 C from 3 C.

Throughout the history of human settlements on Earth, serious land-use errors over time have contributed to desertification (Babylon, Mesopotamia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.: Carthage was a special case).

In Canada, land-use mistakes exacerbated the impacts of the droughts of the 1930s. Cultivation of lands unsuited to that type of farming, combined with the use of machinery that exposed soil to wind erosion, led to a temporary desertification of large parts of Prairie agricultural land.

Much credit is due to the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) for reducing the ultimate impacts and shifting cultivation away from lands unsuited to it (largely into community pastures), encouraging the development and use of machinery that left stubble and straw at the surface to prevent wind erosion, and the planting of shelterbelts to reduce evaporation and wind erosion.

Interestingly, what works for drought also works for floods.

On the Prairies, there have been droughts in some areas while other parts of the same watershed experience floods and land too wet to cultivate. Some times it seems as if Capt. John Palliser's assessment of the portion of the Prairies known as the "Palliser Triangle," (reported to the British Parliament in 1862) as a desert might be true after all: at other times one wonders if a stand-by ark is needed.

Appropriate land use, recognizing a complete ecological system rather than just one primary industry, can blunt both drought and flooding impacts. Moreover, as noted in an excellent article by Alexandra Paul in the FYI section of the Winnipeg Free Press April 20, appropriate land-use initiatives can go a long way to "fix" nutrients in place rather than allow them to run off quickly into downstream lakes, ending up in Lake Winnipeg.

There have been significant floods within the past two decades. These have been dealt with as they happened, with some special infrastructure being augmented (Red River Floodway, Portage Diversion, etc.).

Earlier, PFRA constructed dams to hold back runoff for irrigation, stock watering and community water supply, coincidentally improving flood protection. More frequent flooding and storm damage are placing unexpected demands on insurance and compensation programs. Towns and cities have had to brace for new and more serious climate events, to the extent that measures that worked in previous years are no longer adequate.

There is the further but associated problem of ecological disruption through reduction of a diverse and sustainable mix of species in much of the Prairies, due to intensive farming practices needed for farmers to be viable. Clearing land or draining it for crop use reduces this diversity and makes the ecosystem more susceptible to greater impacts.

The final member of the troika of major impacts is pollution, primarily in downstream lakes. In 1968, I remember the late Helgi Jones of Gull Harbour dipping a cup into Lake Winnipeg over the side of his yawl boat while saying "this is the best water in the world." Now it holds so many nutrients that algae blooms are an annual sight, along with their associated impacts on oxygen availability and fish health.

Trying to affix blame is to discover the truth of the great philosopher Pogo, who said "I have seen the enemy, and he is us!"

So, where does this lead? Annual efforts, largely to mitigate flooding (sometimes substantial) will continue to be needed, particularly in the shorter run, but more must be done to avoid even greater problems in the future. A long-term strategic approach, taking perhaps 25 years or more, needs to embrace the following factors.

Flooding needs to be accepted as a given, and over time flood-prone lands need to be zoned as such, with no structures allowed, and with assistance provided for relocation. Moreover, it needs to be clear that after some predetermined time, there will be no compensation for damages within flood plains: society cannot afford to continue to compensate for misplaced investments.

Structures may be needed in cases where practical to reduce the frequency of flooding by diverting, and impounding, excess water for short time periods and by raising structures above flood level.

Other investments will be needed to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering lakes, particularly Lake Winnipeg. Although blue-green algae require nitrogen to survive, without a supply of phosphorus they don't have a chance. Blaming their growth on a few dozen hog farmers while deferring construction of a treatment plant for Winnipeg is a cruel way to avoid reality and ignore the responsibilities of the broader public interest.

Both droughts and floods can be reduced in their impact by restoring permanent vegetation to lands that used to provide waterfowl and game (including upland) habitat.

Taken together, these replacement habitats, perhaps 10 per cent to 15 per cent of quarter sections (variations could be from zero per cent in some very flat areas to more than 15 per cent where wet areas could be large) provide considerable field storage of water and improve water-table levels and habitat for a greater diversity of ecological species.

Farmers will need to be compensated for their loss of land for their farming operation. These "ecological reservoirs" will not only reduce flooding impacts, they will tie up nutrients at source and reduce the impacts of drought. These measures will eventually cause the disappearance of Lake Winnipeg algae blooms.

But that's the easy part.

Manitoba's water comes from three American states and three other provinces. Unless these jurisdictions take similar measures, the impacts of new weird climate events will still have serious effects downstream: Manitoba.

There also are two national governments affected. Some long-term structure and process is needed, with much broader terms of reference than the International Joint Commission. It also means a variety of departments in all these governments need to co-operate. For this to happen, whatever form of organization evolves, it will need backing in the form of political will sufficient to tackle the issues through several decades of analysis and action.

In the end, it means Canadians and Americans need to tell their representatives that adapting to a new reality of climate with land-use initiatives is imperative. This suggests a broad public conversation is needed to raise awareness in and commitment to this long-term issue. Using all communication techniques of social media and conferences (maybe even a Royal Commission) available, Nelson River watershed residents need an opportunity to understand their connections with each other to address this critical ecological shift and the consequences that cannot be ignored any longer.

Something to keep in mind while getting ready for yet another potential flood in Manitoba.

Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economy and environment issues. For two terms, he was president of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J12

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