On November 24,2015 the government of Manitoba introduced Bill 5, The Surface Water Management Act that will enable regulations to control wetland drainage and that recognizes the value of wetland benefits by enshrining the “no net loss” principle. This is a hugely important move in that the continuing drainage of wetlands across the Prairies is exacerbating flooding, fouling of our lakes with blue-green algae and decreasing our ability to cope with drought. This proposed legislation comes at a time when the whole world is focussed on the COP21 meetings which makes the value of wetlands to act as carbon sinks an important tool in the climate change fight. According to Ducks Unlimited Canada, “wetlands protected by the pending sustainable drainage regulations in Manitoba will potentially prevent approximately 418 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere – equivalent to the emissions of four million passenger vehicles over 20 years”.
In 2014, John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan Centre for Hydrology, released a study that demonstrated the wetland drainage over the last 50 years increased the peak flow during the flood of 2011 by 30%. Considering that Manitoba’s flood costs for 2011 exceeded $1.025 billion, the financial burden alone becomes strong motivation to stop wetland drainage, not to mention the human suffering and loss of habitat for wildlife.
The growing threat of blue-green algae blooms (some of which contain dangerous toxins) in many Prairie lakes is another important factor in the push to protect and restore wetlands. The reason – wetlands are “nature’s kidneys”. They filter much of the phosphorus and nitrogen and other pollutants that contribute to problems in our lakes and rivers.
Many jurisdictions throughout North America are recognising the value of wetlands and the damage we’ve caused by draining so many over the past century. The province of Alberta is investing $31 million over the next 3 years to restore wetlands. The city of New Orleans has identified the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands as one of their key protections to decrease flooding after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.
The Manitoba government’s proposed legislation doesn’t come a moment too soon. I hope that it will be passed with expediency and that the supporting regulations will be developed quickly so that the spring of 2016 will bring a whole new approach to responsible drainage, wetland protection and restoration so that we truly see “no net loss” of the benefits wetlands bring us.