FANNYSTELLE — If every farmer did like Carl Classen, we might not be fretting about the future of Lake Winnipeg.
Classen has dug an on-farm reservoir to hold back drainage from his farm. That means nutrient-rich water runoff doesn't flow into public ditches and ultimately Lake Winnipeg.
Not that farmers are the sole source of nutrient loading into Manitoba's largest lake, but on-farm reservoirs would go a long way to reducing the lake's nitrogen and phosphorous levels and subsequent algae blooms.
That's just one of the benefits of an on-farm reservoir. It's also good for control of downstream flooding. "It doesn't all have to flow through Winnipeg," said Classen, who farms near Fannystelle, just west of Winnipeg.
Ultimately, it's a good farm practice. This is Classen's second year with the reservoir. The first year, he was able to get onto his field 10 days earlier, and better drainage improved his crop yield 20 per cent versus yields on his other cropland.
"If everyone upstream did similar things, we'd have lot less water come rushing into Winnipeg and Lake Winnipeg, and hopefully control the quality of the water. And we could put the nutrients back into our fields," he said.
That's the next step for Classen: to use the water for irrigation, rather than as waste, "if I can find a used irrigation system somewhere." Then those nutrients from fertilizer that would normally be sent to Lake Winnipeg would be reused for agricultural production.
Classen built his reservoir out of necessity. By the time he drains his land in spring or after a heavy rain, the ditches are often too full because of upstream drainage. So he approached the local LaSalle Redboine Conservation District with the idea of building a reservoir as a pilot project. Manitoba has 18 conservation districts, unheralded, grassroots groups that do an extraordinary amount of environmental good. The CDs, cost-shared between the province and local municipalities, develop sustainable land-use practises pertaining to issues such as water quality, nutrient management and soil erosion.
LaSalle Redboine chipped in $40,000 for the reservoir and Classen took care of the tile-drainage system. Tile drainage is basically perforated pipes covered in trenches that use gravity to whisk away water to a dugout. From there, water is pumped automatically into the much larger reservoir. The reservoir measures about six acres. It can hold 6,600,000 imperial gallons, or 30 million litres.
It all makes too much sense until you get to the cost. The combined cost for reservoir and tile drainage is in the $160,000 range, and that's just for a quarter-section. That's $1,000 an acre. People are often shocked by the large dollar amounts farmers deal in, but Classen points out the land sells for $4,000 an acre. He estimates tile drainage with a reservoir would pay for itself in five or six years.
Or sooner. If the drainage system prevents a major crop loss — he estimates a major crop loss from excess moisture every five to eight years, on his farm — that could almost pay for the system, he said.
Tile drainage always pays, insists David Lobb, senior research chair of the Watershed Systems Research program at the University of Manitoba. "I come from southern Ontario where much of the landscape is tile drained," he said.
Lobb is assisting with the pilot project, including testing the water in Classen's reservoir for nutrients. Fertilizer application versus crop uptake tend to be closely balanced — it's just wasted fertilizer and money, when they're not — but it doesn't take much phosphorous to trigger algae blooms, said Lobb.
Right now, it may look cheaper for farmers, if they install tile drainage, to just flow the water into ditches rather than a reservoir. The problem is municipal ditches are only designed for maximum two-inch (five-centimetre) rains. "Lately, we're starting to get four- and six-inch rains. Then the water backs up into fields," said Justin Reid, district manager for the LaSalle Redboine CD. And that results in significant crop losses.
"What we need at Carl's is a few heavy rains and get pictures of Carl's dry field while others around him are wet," said Reid, adding governments could help with incentives. "If a landowner is doing something that benefits the watershed, what kind of compensation would that be worth?" he asked. For example, Classen thinks it's unfair he's charged property tax on his reservoir when it benefits the watershed.