All four of Manitoba's mainstream political parties are promising to preserve and restore wetlands in an effort to hold back flood waters and reduce nutrient loading into the Lake Winnipeg watershed.
But at the start of the provincial election campaign, none is prepared to put a price tag on a package of tax credits, land buyouts and dam-construction efforts that could slow or even stop the loss of marshes, sloughs and prairie potholes within the province.
In a series of stories in the Free Press over the past week, scientists and conservation-minded farmers argued the province must work more closely with agricultural producers to prevent wetlands from disappearing. Ducks Unlimited pegs loss in Manitoba alone at 700 to 1,000 hectares a year and claims this loss of storage capacity has compounded the 2011 spring flood and added to Lake Winnipeg's ecological woes.
Earlier this week, all four Manitoba leaders said their parties are prepared to expand on existing wetlands-preservation efforts. Here's what they had to say about four specific strategies:
1. Paying farmers to store water
Greg Selinger (NDP): Manitoba's premier pledged to expand the package of riparian tax credits, conservation easements and wetlands-restoration payments his government has developed since 1999. He declined to place a price tag on that pledge. "Realistically, we have to build on the foundations we've put in place," Selinger said. "We need good partnerships with people who are living on the land."
Hugh McFadyen (PC): Manitoba's Opposition leader promised to unveil an "ecological goods and services program" that will compensate agricultural producers for preserving wetlands and riparian zones. It will be modelled on a program in place in the RM of Blanshard, in western Manitoba, with details to come later in the campaign. "If we pay farmers accordingly, then the economics will make sense to them," McFadyen said.
Dr. Jon Gerrard (Liberal): Gerrard, who's been blogging about wetlands preservation since 2005, said he, too, would expand the Blanshard model, but would fine-tune it to make more sense for cattle farmers. He lambasted the NDP's record on water management and said a sound policy would eventually pay for itself through reduced flood-recovery and crop-insurance payments. "There are times when Manitoba Water Stewardship doesn't have much credibility," Gerrard said.
James Beddome (Green): The Green leader loosely pegged the cost of his party's wetlands-preservation package at $100 million to $200 million, based on a proportion of an estimated nationwide preservation price tag of $800 million. He, too, cited the Blanshard model. "It's also a way to support agricultural producers," he said.
2. Building small dams
Gerrard: Based on the promising results of research conducted at South Tobacco Creek, where small artificial wetlands have displayed a capacity to reduce downstream flows, Gerrard pledged to build small dams on rolling terrain throughout the province. "It's not appropriate in all areas, but there's a lot of Manitoba where it's very applicable," he said, rattling off minutiae about research findings. "The results were very dramatic. If we manage this properly, there are huge potential savings downstream."
McFadyen: The Tory leader went further, promising to revisit Duff Roblin-era watershed plans such as the construction of larger dams on the Shell, Assiniboine and Red rivers. But he stopped short of promising new dam construction, noting engineering studies must be done.
Selinger: The premier raised small dams as low-cost, relatively effective means of storing water but challenged the notion they could have mitigated the 2011 flooding.
3. A moratorium on new drainage
Beddome: The Greens pledged an absolute halt to wetlands drainage, as Ducks Unlimited has advocated. "We need to hold the line on drainage and we need to get them back," he said.
Selinger and McFadyen: Both leaders would not support a moratorium, insisting it would be impossible to enforce and would only encourage illegal drainage. "If there's no buy-in, it won't work," Selinger said. "It's too blunt an instrument. We need a more nuanced approach," McFadyen added.
Gerrard: The Liberal leader also said no to a moratorium, but proposed an alternative strategy: A "no net loss of wetlands" policy that would allow municipalities to trade drainage credits back and forth to "create an overall balance."
4. More pressure on Saskatchewan
Selinger: The premier said his government is working with its western neighbour to combat wetlands drainage across the vast Assiniboine River watershed. Selinger said joint cabinet meetings are yielding positive results, such as a deal to hold back water from Fishing Lake, Sask., when Manitoba's Shellmouth Reservoir has reached capacity.
McFadyen: The Opposition leader ridiculed the suggestion Selinger has gotten a single watershed concession from Saskatchewan. "As far as I'm concerned, the NDP agreed to the Fishing Lake drain without getting anything in return. They are adding water," he said.
Gerrard and Beddome: Both said Manitoba must lead by example and preserve its own wetlands before expecting Saskatchewan to follow suit.