Storing spring melt could yield flood, crop benefits

With the snow pack in much of Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba at 200 percent or more of normal, there are concerns about the potential for flooding this spring.

Both provinces have issued runoff forecasts that talk about the possibility, but not certainty, of flooding. Much depends on how quickly the snow melts and how much rain falls during the thaw.

The Assiniboine River basin appears most at risk, and it would be wise to take measures now to ameliorate the danger.

Manitoba has already drawn down the reservoir at the Shellmouth Dam to provide room if needed to hold excess water in the Assiniboine basin.

The 2011 Assiniboine flood is fresh in the minds of Manitoba residents, when snow melt and rain rushed through the Assiniboine basin, eventually forcing the Manitoba government to cut the dike at the Hoop and Holler Bend, flooding much agricultural land around Lake Manitoba.

The Manitoba and federal governments spent more than $1 billion fighting the flood and compensating victims.

The effects lingered into 2012, with land around the lake still flooded, limiting use and driving down property values. Landowners have a strong case that continuing damages should trigger continuing compensation.

The immediate focus this spring will be on monitoring and preparedness. Luckily, soil and waterways are dry this year, unlike 2011 when they were full of water from heavy rain in 2010.

However governments would be wise to broaden their thinking about what is becoming a recurring problem, linked to human activity and not just nature.

Creative thinking and smart investment could reduce the damaging effects of excess water. There will be a cost, but it could reduce the billions spent compensating for flood and drought damage.

The first step is to start thinking of excess spring water as a valuable resource rather than a problem.

It is all a question of timing. Water in spring is a nuisance, but its value soars in summer when crops need moisture to reach their yield potential.

The rising value of crops and land gave producers financial incentive to farm as many acres as possible.

Wetlands that stored the spring thaw were drained at an alarming pace without much regulation or thought about the effect on watersheds and the people downstream.

Saskatchewan’s new 25-year water security plan belatedly brings an organized and long-term framework to address the province’s many water issues.

It calls for a new provincial wetland policy that includes assessing the status of wetlands and identifying conservation priorities, including a strategy to retain and restore wetlands. It also plans to improve water data to support decision making and better manage drainage.

Environmentalists and downstream farmers will welcome these initiatives.

However, more Manitoba-Saskatchewan co-operation, planning and information sharing is needed.

And governments should begin to work with farmers to test the proposals of David Lobb, an agricultural water management specialist at the University of Manitoba, and soil scientist Don Flaten. They suggest draining surface water to a pond or dugout to be used later for irrigation or livestock production.

Building an on-field storage system could cost $50,000 to $100,000 but would make waterlogged land more productive and allow for irrigation during summer when it is usually dry.

This has the added benefit of capturing and using nutrients that would otherwise be washed away in the spring melt, polluting Lake Winnipeg downstream.

Visionaries have long dreamed of drought proofing the Prairies. Storing the spring thaw for later use could help make that dream a reality.


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