Monday September 01, 2014

The responsibility of water

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While the threat of this year’s spring snowmelt causing much more than some localized flooding seems remote, every time water starts to run thoughts turn to how do we control potential flooding better.

Sitting here in Yorkton, I am aware of what flooding can cause. When severe rains hit July 1, 2010, large parts of the city were drenched. Both homes and businesses were destroyed and for weeks as a journalist it was the ongoing story in my world.

And yes, I was among the hundreds who ended up bailing water from their living rooms, and replaced carpets, and sleeping in the garage a couple of nights through the worst of the aftermath.

In Yorkton the flood created some near-immediate government reaction. Since July 1, 2010, helping to prepare the city for a future flood situation has become a municipal priority with hundreds of thousands being invested on water flow studies, flood water retention ponds and ditching.

The City also hosted a major conference on flood waters, going as far as to have speakers from the Netherlands, a country with a long history of dealing with water, and its control.

The conference identified one thing, which I suspect we all knew, but having it confirmed never hurts, and that is that on the Canadian Prairies how water moves across farmland has a lot to do with whether river and ditch flooding will occur, and how severe that flooding might be.

Farmers hold the key to water flows in very general terms.

On a more specific level what one farmer does will impact his neighbour’s down flow. We have seen these situations repeatedly.

A farmer has a series of sloughs on his land. While they are natural reservoirs to hold run-off in the spring, or big rain events, and they do provide natural wildlife habitat, they are seen as unproductive acres in terms of adding to the operation’s bottom line.

With always tight margins, the lure to have those slough acres growing crop is always significant. In many cases farmers will eventually opt for draining the sloughs.

Such an operation might net the farmer some additional acres to grow crop, but it pushes the water previously held in those sloughs onto a neighbour’s land.

As the process of slough and pothole drainage extends farm to farm, ditches and small streams are gorged with water they were not designed to handle, and rushing torrents of water start to take out bridges, culverts and roads.

So a question naturally arises, that being whether farmers, in particular those with land in flood prone areas, should have greater restrictions placed on them in terms of drainage of their property?

No one likes the idea of greater regulation in terms of making decisions which can impact a bottom line.

That said, there is also a need to respect the greater good associated with a situation.

Thousands live in Winnipeg, a city prone to flooding each spring.

Decisions made on drainage all the way up river into Saskatchewan contribute to the potential of flooding.

Is a few acres of slough gained on a Saskatchewan farm worth increasing flood damage in the Manitoba city?

Reasonably the answer is one where everyone with a watershed takes responsibility for the system, and that would generally mean no more drainage, if not a redevelopment of some of the on-land storage already lost.

That said, it is also time the people living on a flood plain in Manitoba realized they might want to champion the cause of taxpayer dollars compensating farmers for keeping potholes and sloughs, since it is their property being protected by the decision not to drain and seed those acres.

For the overall system to function better farmers shouldn’t have to limit their production capacity without those that decision benefits helping offset at least some of the potential returns.

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