Water strategy provides opportunity for change

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It was with great excitement that I clicked on Manitoba’s latest Water Management Strategy when it was announced last month.

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Opinion

It was with great excitement that I clicked on Manitoba’s latest Water Management Strategy when it was announced last month.

This strategy matters.

The water landscape of 2022 is very different from that of 2003, when the last plan for how we manage the land of 100,000 lakes was rolled out by the province.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Premier Heather Stefanson looks on as Environment Minister Jeff Wharton discusses the province’s water-management strategy at an event at FortWhyte Alive on Nov. 8.

That makes this the first strategy to speak not only to the critical and unprecedented times in which we find ourselves, but also to the seriousness and urgency with which we need to address the issues around Manitoba’s freshwater supply.

Climate change. Drugs in our water. Reconciliation. Annual floods across the province. And invasive species, well, invading Lake Winnipeg every year.

We are still waiting for phase 2, which is the action plan — a document currently slated for spring 2023 — that details the steps to be taken to tackle these threats to our freshwater supplies. That is to say, the solutions.

For all the disasters and crises that face our water today and make headlines, what will really improve our current reality are realistic and sustainable solutions that have been proven to work in the real world.

One set of solutions I was particularly excited to see was a meaningful mention of “natural infrastructure” in last month’s strategy.

While infrastructure admittedly may not get too many excited, it is, basically, everything. It’s how we house and feed ourselves, how we protect the environment, and how we access our water.

Natural infrastructure is basically a way to plan and build with nature to meet our infrastructure needs — which are currently under increasing pressure.

It can mean preserving an existing natural system, such as a pond or a marsh. It can mean restoring a natural ecosystem, including replanting an area that has been mowed for, say, agricultural or building purposes.

Or it can mean thinking differently about how we incorporate nature into our urban landscapes, such as the green roofs that sit atop the Canadian Museum for Human Rights right here in Winnipeg.

Regardless of what shape it takes, natural infrastructure is always managed to provide specific infrastructure benefits for us all, but also with the potential for providing many more social and environmental benefits.

What does that look like? Well, imagine a restored wetland that will host plants that can remove harmful excess elements from the water it contains, but can also provide a habitat for local fauna to flourish, as well as a recreational spot for locals to enjoy.

And if all that is not enough, natural infrastructure projects could even save us US$248 billion per year globally.

So, what does all this mean for Manitoba, and for the next steps of this water management policy to be detailed in spring’s action plan?

Well first up, let’s talk money.

We already have leading-edge endowment funds — the Conservation Trust and the GROW Trusts, to name a few — right here in Manitoba that are offering up significant financial resources to implement these projects.

These funds can be leveraged to attract additional, diverse funds so that we can build larger and better projects across our rural and municipal communities.

Along the way, we need to keep making the business case. This basically means demonstrating just how impactful and cost-effective such initiatives can be for the future of Manitoba.

To make natural infrastructure projects as effective as possible, we need to be actively tracking the health of the watersheds they’re meant to be improving.

A well-designed monitoring system that uses trackers to monitor the health of our waterways in real time, and also carves out a space for communities themselves to collect and offer up their own data (community-based monitoring), will provide us with critical information to not only to tell us where natural infrastructure efforts are most needed, but also which projects are most effectively yielding those results that matter to Manitobans.

Ultimately, we need to keep building smarter natural infrastructure solutions that improve the state of Manitoba’s water landscape, and also bolster those many other benefits that nature already provides for us (biodiversity, agricultural productivity, recreation, social well-being and more), well, naturally.

Dimple Roy is director of water management for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

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