Governments Sleepwalking Into Water Crisis

Commentary, Agriculture, Les Routledge

Governments here on the Prairies need to wake out of their slumber and prevent water supply issues from reaching crisis levels, as has happened in Australia and other regions of the world.

In Australia, farms and dams are being removed from operation in parts of New South Wales in order to provide water for communities along the Murray-Darling Basin. These farms and dams would then be converted into a national park.

This aspect of policy discussion is almost invisible in Manitoba. The decisions about who does and does not get access to water and water supply infrastructure investment is nearly as murky as the decision-making processes of our human rights commissions. In water supply politics, there appears to be some un-elected “Lords” in the public sector who believe that they know better than all others how to deal with future demands. So far, their tendency has been to channel all most available supply into urban centres like Winnipeg, Brandon and Portage.

Our water supply policy framework in Manitoba is completely dysfunctional. It can take up to 20 years to secure an irrigation licence under our current system. Communities are being encouraged to compete against other communities for small infrastructure funding when the need is for a regional approach that will serve our needs for the next 100 years.

This is clearly a non-partisan issue, as all political parties have failed to address this emerging issue. They need to be stimulated out of their slumber and encouraged to think beyond short-term partisan politics and figure out good public policy. This is a situation where inattention will result in all of us sleep walking into a disaster.

A couple of years ago, the Pembina Valley Water Co-op had its application to drought-proof its water supply system denied by the Public Utilities Board and the provincial government. For all intents and purposes, this decision will place a cap on development in all areas in the Red River and Pembina Valleys that are supplied by that water infrastructure system. For fast growing cities and towns like Winkler, Morden and Altona, this could be a devastating blow to their future development prospects. This is also seen in the City of Calgary where, despite the large number of water suppliers, industrial and commercial developments located in satellite towns and cities are being denied supply.

Further to the west in southern Manitoba, we cannot even secure an engagement with provincial authorities about how to create a regional water supply system that will enable our communities to grow and develop in the future. After several years of work, it almost appears that south-central and south-western Manitoba has been red-lined in terms of investment in this critical infrastructure development. An ideal solution could be to connect to the Pembina Valley Water Co-op system and add in our local supplies to support a bigger regional system. Unfortunately, this idea does not appear to be in the cards at this time.

Within the next 20 years, most communities in southern Manitoba will need to invest significant funds to modernize and expand their water supply systems. During this same period, all of these local organizations will be challenged to attract and retain qualified operators of this infrastructure. Instead of dealing with this challenge on a community-to-community basis, why is it that our policy and political leaders cannot take a long term view and develop a plan that will serve our needs for the next 100 years?

In the future, the prospects of economic development in rural areas will be seriously affected by access to water supply resources. Figuring out how much supply is available, how it should be allocated, and how the supply infrastructure should be paid for needs to become an important priority for municipal, provincial, and federal leaders.

If rural people do not get involved with the process of determining water supply policies, we may very well experience the situation that is occurring in Australia as mentioned above where rural communities are being shut down upon federal government actions. Is that an outcome that we want to experience here in Manitoba?

What is most evident is that these water policy decisions are too important to leave up to the discretion of some faceless bureaucrat in Winnipeg or Ottawa.

**** In the preceding article, the decision about drought proofing the Pembina Valley Water Coop was incorrectly attributed to the Public Utilities Board. The decision was made by the Clean Environment Commission. ****