This is a province that is ruled by water. We’re concerned when the rivers flow too high in spring, creating the potential for flooding, upheaval and the loss of lives — both human and animal. We begin to feel nervous when the banks of the rivers are too low and the snow retreats quickly from our fields, leaving the soil dry. What will this mean for crops and our economy?
We worry about the health of our lakes and rivers, and the possible effects on our fish populations. Roughly 15 per cent of Manitoba is made up of water, and how this province takes care of this important resource is now in the provincial government’s hands.
Earlier this week, a report by an expert advisory council on a provincial water management strategy was received by the ministers of conservation and agriculture. Its recommendations are expected to become part of the Pallister government’s provincewide water management strategy.
It couldn’t come at a more urgent time. A quick look at Manitoba’s drought-conditions map for the spring shows things are not looking very promising. Much of the south of the province is marked as either in severe drought or moderate drought. According to the federal government’s Canadian Drought Monitor assessment, extreme drought conditions haven’t yet developed in southern Manitoba but "there is the potential for rapid degradation of drought should conditions continue as spring approaches."
Those of us who live in the city might be wondering why our houses are developing cracks everywhere. Last year was the driest year on record — in total, Winnipeg received only 273 mm of precipitation in 2020, about 50 per cent of the city’s annual average. That’s great for keeping the mosquitoes at bay, but it’s not great for foundations of some old houses. And it’s going to mean many of us are going to have to spend an enormous amount of money on foundation repairs and on "watering our foundations" just to keep houses straight.
Climate change is playing a key role in this extreme weather. Indeed, the Manitoba government predicts that "‘we will see warmer and wetter winters and longer, warmer and drier summers. Precipitation is likely to vary more from year to year. Extreme weather, such as heat waves, droughts, floods and intense storms, will likely become more common."
It’s time for a cohesive and comprehensive water strategy for the entire province.
The council’s report to the province includes 16 recommendations, but the biggest takeaway is the message that Manitoba needs to have an integrated watershed strategy. Basically, a watershed is an area of land that contains a common set of streams and rivers that all drain into a single larger body of water. The recommendations call for a co-ordinated watershed management plan that should "include activities, communities, and water resources from all regions of the province; for all regions of the province."
The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has long been calling for action on Manitoba’s watershed policy. Dimple Roy, IISD’s director of water management and a member of the executive council that produced this week’s report, wrote in 2017 that "strengthening co-ordination between proposed watershed authorities, municipal plans, agricultural extension groups, and other local planning entities is necessary."
This plan could provide an important first step.
The report suggests Manitoba should look beyond its borders to "work with other jurisdictions to update and strengthen existing interprovincial and international mechanisms (e.g., International Joint Commission, Prairie Provinces Water Board), and develop new interprovincial agreements as needed." Water, as we know all too well, doesn’t stop at the border.
It’s also time to modernize. The report recommends the province should build upon existing water management plans, with the aim of updating and improving current plans in all municipalities and communities, and encourage continued investment in clean water. Clean water is a right — not just for those of us in cities, but everywhere.
If the report’s broadly stated recommendations are taken seriously, with an eye toward modernizing water-related policies in Manitoba, perhaps specific issues such as the regular spills of raw sewage into the Assiniboine River could become a thing of the past. But taking them seriously is the key — with the report now in the province’s hands, it’s imperative for government to act upon the recommendations.
It’s time for Manitoba to show leadership by managing water as a resource for the entire province — without cutting it up into regions, communities and municipalities in a way that creates competition instead of collaboration. We need to invest in clean-water technology that is visionary, and we need to move beyond election cycles to commit to a comprehensive strategy that will maintain this vital asset.
This should be a legacy project any politician should be proud to put their name on. Who will be brave enough to commit to it?
Shannon Sampert is a Winnipeg-based political scientist.