Dipping Toes into Water Policy

Commentary, Rural, Robert Sopuck

Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’ over.”

Truer words were never spoken, especially in the case of Manitoba’s vast water resources. Our NDP government has announced a complete overhaul of water policy, a bold decision that deserves praise. Other governments have floundered trying to make sense of water management, so the fight will come.

Droughts and floods are permanent fixtures in Manitoba and how we manage water resources is crucial to the future of dozens of our communities. Who can forget the “Flood of ’97” and the wise, life-and-death pronouncements of Larry Whitney? Winnipeg was spared a major catastrophe due to one man’s vision, Progressive Conservative Premier Duff Roblin, who over 40 years ago decided to end forever the flooding scourge that plagued Winnipeg. He did it by building three interconnected projects: the Red River Floodway, the Portage Diversion, and the Shellmouth Dam near Russell.

The Floodway diverts a large percentage of the Red’s flow around Winnipeg during the flood season. The other two projects neutralized the Assiniboine River as a flood threat to Winnipeg. The Lake-of-the Prairies reservoir behind the Shellmouth Dam ensures a constant flow in the Assiniboine. This makes the river such a pleasure for residents of Manitoba while at the same time delivering irrigation water for our growing potato industry. More such projects are required.

Too much water also plagues regions like the south-east and the Interlake. These poorly-drained regions need more drainage ditches to move spring run-off from fields so farmers can work the land. The Province has signalled that drainage will be a priority. Great news, but they might just run into a new bureaucratic meat-grinder, courtesy of the federal government.

Officials of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans now have the power to designate just about any waterbody as “critical fish habitat”, even, most bizarrely, sewer systems and drainage ditches. Never mind that fish were never a feature of these artificial structures. And once the “feds” start up their regulatory machinery, a process of endless hearings, permits and delays begins that is sure to hamper the ability of Manitoba communities to protect themselves. Winnipeggers will also feel this extra layer of bureaucratic oversight, because it promises to delay and complicate planned improvements to the Winnipeg floodway.

The crux of the problem for the future relates mainly to how we distribute our water supplies — who gets how much water and when. How best to do this is the crucial question. A modern, environmental perspective would dictate that market pricing shape water demand, so people understand the real value of the resource and are forced to conserve. If the government chooses to make it even cheaper and more affordable, demand will increase and more water will be wasted. The NDP’s review has to resolve this complicated issue, and we wish them well in this difficult task.

One thing’s for sure: we must manage water and not leave it to the whims of Mother Nature. The important voices in this process are those of the affected communities. In today’s legalistic society, burdened by the problem of new federal interference, this crucial input may be ignored.

What would have become of Duff’s dreams, and our safety, had there been as much red tape then as there is now?

Think it over.