Leave the wetlands wet

February 28, 2011

Copyright Wpg Free Press

Forecasters are calling for Manitoba’s second massive flood in the last 15 years. Anxiety is high as people brace for the worst. Water pouring over land is indeed one of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces. And while conditions and precipitation have put us in this position, when do we start thinking about next time?

With flooding expected across much of our province, there is always a strong call for more drainage. The problem is, some of that drainage work ends up not only draining our wetlands, but contributing to more intensive downstream flooding. When wetlands are drained, that water needs to go somewhere; usually negatively impacting our neighbours and others downstream.

No matter how bad the flooding situation is this year, the science is clear—wetland drainage will only make our next flood event worse.

Wetlands help reduce flooding by acting as sponges; holding water,  then slowly releasing it back onto the land. Wetland drainage not only removes water from the wetlands, it also removes the water from the surrounding lands that filled those wetlands during spring runoff and storm events. On average, for every acre of wetland drained, an additional five acres of surrounding area is added to downstream flows.

Flooding causes major damage and costs all of us in infrastructure repair and compensation expenses. The costs to repair the damage done in a flood year will only increase if we keep draining wetlands.

It is estimated wetlands provide more than $400 million in flood-prevention benefits in southwest Manitoba alone.

These benefits transform into flood-fighting costs as wetlands are drained—costs such as building and maintaining replacement water retention areas, more or higher dikes, levees and diversions, and floodway construction. Then there are the extra costs associated with additional flood damage, which could have been prevented. Manitobans pay for all these expenditures through our taxes.

Ducks Unlimited Canada’s (DUC) most recent research in the Broughton’s Creek watershed in southwestern Manitoba estimates wetland drainage has increased total runoff (total volume of water draining downstream) by 62 per cent and peak discharge (high water flows) by approximately 37 per cent.

DUC’s research suggests if we continue to drain the remaining wetlands from the Broughton’s Creek watershed, total runoff will almost triple in volume and peak discharge will more than double. Given the impact flooding has had on agriculture, infrastructure and human life these last few years alone, we cannot afford to continue down this path.  The flood-mitigation benefits of wetlands alone demand we take responsibility to protect what wetlands remain and restore what we can.

We should learn from others—while we still can. Over the last number of years, flooding has been no stranger to the state of Iowa.

Environmental experts have said in the news many of their flood events could, in fact, be considered acts of man rather than nature, as man has removed the natural features and water-absorbing benefits from the land.

Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy website states less than 10 per cent of that state’s original wetlands remain and they have lost about 200,000 hectares of wetlands that could otherwise mitigate damage from future flooding.

Researchers have also linked the damaging 1993 and 1995 floods in the Mississippi River Valley to wetland drainage.

Wetland drainage is a major environmental and economic issue all Manitobans should be concerned about. Wetland drainage contributes to flooding and impacts our taxes and our lives. We can’t afford to lose anymore wetlands.

Stopping wetland loss is an important solution to preventing even greater flooding problems in the future. Manitoba needs a wetland policy that protects wetlands so they can protect all of us.

Manitoba is headed into an election this fall and Manitobans need to make wetlands an election issue. Talk to your local candidates and tell them why wetlands are important for reducing flooding and to you. We need to act now before others look to Manitoba as a lesson to be learned.

Bob Grant is manager of operations Ducks Unlimited Canada in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2011 A12

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