Wetlands crucial to our prosperity

Thursday February 2 at 12:00

Today is World Wetlands Day. On this day in 1971, the international Convention on Wetlands was adopted in Ramsar, Iran, providing a framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands across the globe.

In 2017, the international community is celebrating "Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction," a theme that should resonate with Manitobans as we watch the snow accumulate outside and hear the flood forecasts begin to roll in.

By all accounts so far, flood risk is projected to be high in 2017. Wet soil conditions and above-normal lake levels last fall, combined with considerable snow depth this winter, are increasing the probability of spring flooding. And as spring rolls into summer, Manitobans will be faced with another all-too-familiar water woe - the algae blooms that plague our lakes, particularly iconic Lake Winnipeg.

These water woes are connected: flooding events, with the significant economic and emotional toll they wreak on Manitobans, are also nutrient-loading events, feeding blue-green blooms on our lakes. These interconnected water challenges all point to a new climate reality for our province. The Red River Basin Commission has advised Manitobans to prepare for longer, wetter springs, followed by hotter, drier summers. These changes will impact our agricultural and tourism industries and increase the severity and cost of flooding and drought. More than ever, our ability to manage water wisely will determine our wealth. Luckily, there is a cost-effective solution that can reduce the financial burden of these significant challenges.

Manitoba's native wetlands are ecological workhorses for disaster risk reduction - holding water back to reduce peak flows, storing carbon and filtering water to remove contaminants and the excess nutrients that cause algae blooms.

And yet, based on annual averages to date, we'll lose nine acres - equivalent to 4½ football fields - of wetlands every day in 2017. Wetlands continue to be drained to make way for agriculture and urban development. We still don't have formal legislation in place to prevent this ongoing habitat loss or the financial drain it imposes on our provincial coffers.

Peak water levels during the 2011 spring flood were 32 per cent higher due to ongoing wetland loss, watershed experts at the University of Saskatchewan say. That flood cost Manitoba's agricultural industry over $1 billion - and some Manitobans their homes. Wetland loss is a cost we can no longer afford.

Denigrated for too long as swamps and wastelands, wetlands are in fact the opposite - they are ecological capital Manitobans must start saving up in order to address our financial deficit and prepare for the new climate reality. We cannot afford another billion-dollar flood; austere times force us to find solutions that address multiple problems. Leadership in wetland protection here at home gives us the social licence to effectively influence our neighbours in Saskatchewan as we brace for even more water flowing into Manitoba from the west in 2017.

Premier Brian Pallister has indicated his government intends to bring forward a green plan, including a provincial strategy for water management, in the upcoming spring legislative session. At Ag Days in Brandon in January, Pallister acknowledged the increasing urgency of wise water management in a changing climate.

"This is a challenge we must face together, ensuring we farm the best land better while allowing water to be retained in places that make sense," Pallister said.

A comprehensive water-management plan is long overdue and must be a priority for Manitoba. Getting water management right is crucial to addressing the premier's other priorities: fixing our province's finances and making Manitoba the most improved province.

We can't just fight floods anymore - we need to think ahead in order to prevent them. Made-in-Manitoba wetland-protection legislation is an efficient and fiscally responsible way to protect our homes, our industries and our beloved lakes.

Many Manitobans know our iconic and beautiful Lake Winnipeg is the 10th-largest in the world, recognized internationally for its ecological value and provincially for its contribution to our local economies. Less well-known are the province's threatened wetlands - including two sites designated as internationally important through the 1971 Ramsar Convention. These native ecosystems do much of the heavy lifting to ensure Manitobans continue to enjoy beautiful summers at the lake.

Today, on World Wetlands Day, from our perspective in a flood-prone province, wetland protection amounts to much more than saving our natural heritage. It's a matter of fiscal responsibility: an investment in the ecological capital that will determine our future prosperity.

by: Alexis Kanu and Scott Stephens

Alexis Kanu is executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. Scott Stephens is director of regional operations, Prairie region, for Ducks Unlimited Canada.

For the online article click here.