Prairie lessons for Rossland

The terrible floods in Manitoba are the worst in that area since long before the province joined the country, but national media services seem content to blame nature for this man-made disaster.

From the commentary, you’d think this calamity were the fault of Her natural whim to heap on a heavier snowpack and senselessly wreak havoc on people’s homes.

I’m not talking about man’s hand in climate change, though that has its many and mysterious impacts which certainly play a role.

I’ll get to my fall guy — ecological ignorance in agriculture — but first, I do not mean to diminish from the very real hardship faced in Brandon and other afflicted or threatened areas.

As thousands of evacuees face homelessness and leaders consider breaking dikes, this is an emergency that requires our national support. Among other crises, the floods threaten to put many small farmers — who, against all odds, have made it well into the 21st century — out of business once and for all.

Nationally, the military brass shines bright this week. It is commendable to have 700 citizens in the forces working to fortify parts of Manitoba, and 300 more troops potentially on the way.

A military is absolutely necessary, but a focus on humanitarian and peaceful missions, emergency rescue, and an expansion of the number of local militias skilled in these arts, will strengthen Canada far more than F-35s and foreign wars will weaken us.

But let’s get to the crux: If we are to address root causes, our entire country must get on board with ecological restoration as a major function to safeguard our nation’s strength, health, and sovereignty.

I may as well point the finger, because the culprit for the flood is clear to me.

I blame years of misguided agricultural policies and practices. Millions of wetlands, some 70 per cent, have been drained across the prairie region, from southern Alberta to southern Manitoba, and northern Montana to North Dakota. And the “sponge” of these “prairie potholes” continues to be squeezed dry and torn out.

All of the streams in this watershed drain towards Lake Winnipeg, but in the past, very few of the potholes were connected to streams. One by one, drop in the bucket by drop, the potholes that once throbbed with the birds and herds that came to eat and drink were drained away with ditches that, each spring, flood the lower stretches.

Drainage may have increased available crop land and made it easier for tractors to negotiate, but the digger and plough didn’t just destroy the region’s water brakes.

Small ponds and marshes are natural cleansers, capturing and filtering soil and nutrients that run off even the gentlest slopes.

Now, runoff no longer held in check by potholes leads to the equivalent of a half million bags of lawn fertilizer being dumped into Lake Winnipeg each year. The storm water has become sewage and the effect is an emerald green Lake Winnipeg visible from space, the eutrophication of Manitoba’s heart into poison algae and an increasingly fishless anoxic soup.

The tragedy in Manitoba is that people’s homes and livelihoods are being destroyed, and it is worse that the flood is the direct result of the destruction of so many other creature’s homes that were in the reeds and sedges that once held back the rich blood of prairie runoff.

Looking to their future, unless work is done to reintroduce wetlands on farm holdings across the prairies, the effects will only get worse as climate change ramps up.

In Rossland we face a droughty summer, a $6- million infrastructure project to upgrade water and waste systems, and other similar issues. We should consider ways we can make nature our partner as we plan our infrastructure; ecological renovations hold the promise of cost savings and health gains.

Our storm water, sewage, and water supply infrastructure is absolutely vital right now, since very few people store an appreciable amount of water on their property — Les Carter and Sara Golling’s underground cistern stands out as a great counter-example.

If people had roof top gardens, captured melt and rain water, re-used their grey water in gardens and small ponds, and composted their own waste, water supply lines could be small and sewage lines and treatment systems would be unnecessary.

Dreaming big, we could save ourselves millions and live in Eden.


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