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Turning down the flooding tap

It's time to consider restoring wetlands

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As sure as death and taxes, spring is coming to Manitoba. And so is another flood.

We don't know when or how much, but it's now a certainty, given the sun's increasing warmth on the existing snowpack. Flood officials are optimistic it won't be as wild and costly as the billion-dollar flood of 2011, but they also admit Manitoba is at the mercy of the weather.

Flood Fight

Or is it?

Maybe in the short term, but with six, possibly seven,of the top 10 floods to hit this province since 1800 occurring within the last two decades, there are many asking whether there is something else going on. Climate change, maybe?

Or could it also have something to do with the surge in drainage activity as farmers have tried to get water off their land earlier in spring, and drained wetlands to put more acres into production?

Whether there is a correlation between drainage and increasing flood damage or this is just a coincidence is still the subject of hot debate -- at least among farmers who are anxious to do more drainage and those who are at the receiving end of the floodwaters.

We wouldn't have farming in much of Manitoba if we didn't have drainage. As environmental historian Shannon Stunden Bower argues in a 2011 book called Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, soggy bogs and drains played a pivotal role in defining the politics of this province. Settlers were given free land, but what good was it if they couldn't count on getting a crop off it?

However, after a century of drainage culture, there is growing consensus that the concept of holding water back could play an important role in flood mitigation, as well as potentially providing drought relief and economic development.

U.S. scientists have even coined the phrase "re-naturalizing the hydrology" to describe a new planning tool for restoring the historic water-storage capacity of a watershed. Researchers with Oregon State University found they could capture the runoff from 29 per cent of a watershed using 1.5 per cent of the land base.

Ducks Unlimited Canada estimates southwestern Manitoba has lost 100,000 hectares of wetland ecosystems over the past 40 to 60 years and they continue to disappear at a rate of six hectares per day. The science is showing that when wetlands are drained, it virtually eliminates the surrounding watershed's ability to store water.

"On average, for every acre of wetland that is drained, four additional acres of surrounding lands are also drained. This greatly increases the amount of water moving downstream, as well as the speed at which that water travels," Ducks Unlimited says.

That runoff water is often loaded with nutrients and other contaminants, which feeds the deteriorating quality in Manitoba's rivers, lakes and drinking water. Provincial records show that in 2010, there were more than 100 rural communities in Manitoba that exceeded provincial water-quality standards for trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen created when organic matter in water combines with chlorine disinfectant.

Storing water is complicated. It delays farm operations or takes farmland out of production. It isn't the sole solution. There is also the sticky question of who should pay for it. Should landowners bear the cost or should society pony up through programs that reward farmers for supplying ecological goods and services as well as food? It's a principle worth discussing. But the darker reality is that whether or not governments come through, farmers and their communities are the ones with the most to lose if the flooding continues.

Governments haven't finished paying for the last flood and they are ill-prepared to pay for another one.

But aside from that, the human cost of flooding is a distinctly rural issue. Rural Manitobans live the stress, the lost livelihoods, the washed-away dreams, the inconvenience and the uncertainty. For most people in Winnipeg, floods are something on TV.

This is one reality TV show in which rural Manitobans would happily bypass having a leading role.

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 March 30, 2013 B7

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