How wet was the early Red River Valley?
In 1880, government of the decade-old Province of Manitoba passed the first Drainage Act. It was a monumental undertaking. The legislation enabled the drainage of nine major wetlands: St. Andrews Marsh, Seine River Marsh, Springfield Marsh, Boyne River Marsh, Westbourne Marsh, Big Grass Marsh, Woodlands Marsh, Tobacco Creek Marsh, and marshes southwest of the Rat River around the Provencher area.
You couldn’t imagine a government taking that kind of action today. These were massive wetlands. The St. Andrews bog alone, on the northern flank of Winnipeg, covered 47,000 acres. How successful was the government drainage program? All that’s left of the St. Andrews bog today is Ducks Unlimited’s 250-acre rescue project called Oak Hammock Marsh.
We don’t know the names of most of the marshes today because they’re gone. Wetlands were wastelands back then. Or, as author Shannon Stunden Bower puts it in her book, Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, marshland was just submerged farmland waiting to be drained.
Today, wetland is treated as an endangered species because that’s what it has become. Back in the day, it was maddeningly everywhere. The first settlers didn’t know whether to walk, wade or swim across southern Manitoba. For sure they had to slog. They didn’t know whether to wear moccasins, rubber boots or flippers. The “Last Best West” advertisements that drew them to Canada said nothing about packing hip waders. The 1850s explorer Henry Youle Hind, intrepidly trekking over what was to be named Manitoba, itemized in a travelogue his daily “wade through marshes and bogs.”
By some estimates, 60 per cent of the Red River Valley lowlands were wetlands. That’s the Manitoba that Indigenous people knew and that Selkirk settlers encountered. Those lowlands are regarded as the land between the Manitoba Escarpment and Canadian Shield, including the Big Grass Marsh east of Lake Manitoba. The Big Grass Marsh is the only survivor among the big marshes targeted for drainage, thanks again to a Ducks Unlimited lobbying effort in the 1940s to preserve waterfowl nesting grounds.
So the province, under The Drainage Act of 1880, carried out its plans to dig 200 miles of drainage ditches. It shaped the development of Manitoba. Why embark on this massive transformation of the landscape? Because no one wanted to settle in the new province. Droves of immigrants were passing on southern Manitoba because it was too wet for settlement. They were relocating farther west on top of the Manitoba Escarpment, where it was much drier. British and Ontario farmers knew that and “claimed much of the best land at an early date” in those uplands, writes Stunden Bower. Most of that region wasn’t even Manitoba yet until the postage stamp province extended its western boundary in 1881 to where it is today (the current northern boundary was established in 1912).
Meanwhile, immigrants from central and eastern Europe who did not speak English as well were gently ushered into the sopping Red River Valley.[i] About 7,000 Mennonite immigrants from Russian-controlled Ukraine between 1874 and 1880 were settled in the Red River Valley on what are called the East and West Reserves: the East Reserve became Steinbach and the RM of Hanover, and the West Reserve is now Altona and Winkler. It was so wet in the West Reserve that one of the first acts of the newcomers, after building churches, was to dig an eight-mile drainage ditch—with hand shovels.[ii] The reward, of course, was it turned out drained lands contained the most fertile soils in Manitoba.
“To it and at it, and at it and to it,” in the immortal words of Stompin’ Tom Connors. The term “swamp land in Florida” definitely applied to southern Manitoba. In fact, people didn’t use the term “wetland” back then. That’s today’s polite, tea party word. Back then it was swamp or bog. In 1885, the federal government and Manitoba jointly passed The Swamp Lands Act to address the issue of immigrants bypassing Manitoba. The Swamp Lands Act targeted the drainage and rehabilitation of seven to 10 million acres. Not all of it was marsh but was land that in one way or another was affected by marsh. There are only 17.6 million acres of land farmed in all of Manitoba today.[iii] But much of that rehabilitated land would turn out to be the best farmland with the blackest soils.
Make no mistake, agriculture was far and away the biggest industry, the economic and population engine at the time. Having so much wetland threatened the future prosperity of the new province. No one really blames the governments for what they did, or the newcomers for digging their drains to survive, even though the actions may seem abhorrent today. It is what has made living in southern Manitoba comfortable today. Besides, Manitoba wasn’t going to get far promoting itself as “the swamp capital of North America, and did we mention flooding?” It points to the miracle that is our province. No one knows what Manitoba, or Winnipeg, would look like today if government hadn’t embarked on its drainage campaign, which was only a precursor to flood mitigation that followed with dams, floodways and diversions. But it would look a lot different. The massive drainage campaign, started in the 1880s, helped trigger the population boom that followed at the turn of the century. It was an early Ponzi scheme: as land was drained and sold, government made money to dig more drains and sell more land.
From the Shellmouth Dam to the Portage Diversion to the Winnipeg Floodway to the Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin diversion channel the province is building today, plus all the countless provincial, municipal and private drains, the Red River Valley in Manitoba is a veritable Netherlands of Canada and possibly of North America. Yet most of us actually thought we were part of the “arid prairies” because that’s all we read about in the studies and literature about the Prairies. Thank goodness novelist Frederick Phillip Grove trusted his own experience when he wrote his Manitoba classic, Settlers of the Marsh.
That’s how Stunden Bower came to write her landmark book, and coin the term that properly describes much of southern Manitoba: wet prairie. Everything she read and heard about the Prairies was about how dry it was, about baking suns and shriveling crops and blowing soils, yet that wasn’t her experience at all. She grew up on the banks of the Red River in Kingston Row, the first subdivision of Winnipeg to flood whenever the river throws a tantrum.
“I was a history student and I was thinking about the Prairies, and all the literature I was reading was about the Prairies as a dry landscape, and that didn’t intersect with my personal experience at all,” she said in a telephone interview from Edmonton, where she is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.
Her first idea was to investigate catastrophic flooding. “But as I went deeper into the record, it became clear to me that at least as significant an issue was the history of drainage.”
Manitoba gets more annual precipitation than farther west. Southern Manitoba receives between 300 – 600 millimetres of precipitation per year, or one to two feet, compared to 200 – 300 mm in southern Saskatchewan, or eight to 12 inches.[iv]
Stunden Bower isn’t convinced that’s a significant difference. The bigger issue is the Red River Valley is at the bottom of a soup bowl. It’s an alleyway to Lake Winnipeg with ball-return pedestals on each side representing the Manitoba Escarpment to the west, and the Canadian Shield to the east. Add to that the flatness and the impermeable clay bottom left by glacial Lake Agassiz, and you have the conditions for chronic moisture migraines. “The Red River Valley is one of the largest flat expanses of land globally,” said Stunden Bower. “Which is quite amazing. It means water problems, when they present themselves, don’t readily dissolve.”
Not only is Manitoba less prone to drought, but its added moisture allows it to grow a greater diversity of crops than its neighbours immediately to the west.
Stunden Bower has heard all about the urban-rural disconnect, how urban residents don’t know where their food comes from anymore, how their expectations of country and farm life are inflated by Disney-esque visions. But another clear example of the disconnect is drainage. Farmers know all about the wet prairie, she said. Urban residents don’t have a clue.
Farmers don’t need anyone to tell them it’s a wet prairie. “They understand they have to think about drainage, and they know they’re grappling with a certain sort of environment,” she said. It’s the rest of Manitoba, including Stunden Bower before she started her book, that has trouble wrapping its head around the wet prairie concept. Drainage is another example of “the kind of breakdown” that persists in society, she said.
However, she’s buoyed by recent developments in Manitoba. The province recently changed the name of its conservation districts to watershed districts. The move places emphasis on the water aspects of the environment, so critical in a province like Manitoba, which is the receptacle of water from the south, east and west.
It isn’t just new names, like the Pembina Valley Watershed District, the Assiniboine West Watershed District, the Northeast Red Watershed District, the Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District (covering three rivers southeast of Winnipeg), etc. The change also means the districts will now follow watershed boundaries instead of municipal boundaries. That brings everyone in a particular watershed to the table and eases tensions that can erupt between highlanders (those who are high and dry) and lowlanders (those who are low and get the flow). After all, the borders of the first conservation district for the Whitemud district was based on the Whitemud River watershed.
For those not familiar with the history of the Conservation District Program, now called the Watershed Districts Program, there were 18 conservation districts previously. That number is now reduced to 14 watershed districts with some recent amalgamations due to new watershed boundaries. The districts have been providing seed money for local farm initiatives that protect and improve the environment—everything from planting shelterbelts to reducing soil erosion and providing wildlife habitat, to fencing livestock off from waterways to protecting water quality, to returning marginal land like wetlands to their natural state. They are small projects but they add up and up and up, year after year.
That’s not Stunden Bower’s view. Government set up the situation with drainage. It wanted agricultural industry and increased population, along with the money that came with those things, so it laid the groundwork for that development with drainage. “We’re talking about the process of colonization that put individuals in certain positions. The vast majority of farmers arrived on the land through that system. The vast majority have had a hard time of it and didn’t have the best options but have tried to do their best,” said Stunden Bower.
She sees no difference between towns and cities protecting themselves and their livelihoods against flooding, and farmers protecting their properties and businesses via drainage. But now “what we’re having to do is roll back that agricultural settlement a bit.”
That is, Stunden Bower thinks it’s perfectly understandable that government and individuals embarked on drainage but it went too far and now we have to get some of it back. The general public has a better understanding today of the value of wetlands for water retention, water filtering and wildlife habitat.
Stunden Bower was also very pleased that the province didn’t just change the names and boundaries of watershed districts but also increased funding for projects to protect watersheds. From 2018 – 2020 Manitoba invested $204 million to create three conservation-based trust funds called the Conservation, Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) and Wetlands GROW Trusts. The interest earned on the three trusts provides project funding to conservation-based organizations (like watershed districts) in Manitoba and although the total will vary depending on market conditions, it’s anticipated that approximately $8 million in interest will be available for project funding annually. A new provincial initiative, also called GROW, provides a framework for the distribution of GROW and Wetlands GROW Trusts funding to watershed districts to work with producers and recognize the valuable environmental benefits Manitoba farms provide. Through the establishment of these trusts, the province has more than doubled available funding for watershed districts and the numerous localized conservation projects that districts implement.
“They can’t do it on their own,” Stunden Bower said of farmers. Nutrient retention and wildlife habitat are public goods and shouldn’t just fall to the landowner, she said. “This is the moment where the state really has to respond to facilitate the effort toward more ecologically appropriate land management. The big imperative here is climate change, and public investment in adaptive land management is going to be necessary.”
WHAT’S THE BEST way to protect water quality?
Studies by soil scientist David Lobb of the University of Manitoba show water retention is the best option to lessen flooding and nutrient flow into the province’s waterways.
“In terms of water management, and protection of water quality, you have to manage runoff. To me, that’s a major shift in how we think of the issue,” he said in an interview.
Watershed districts have funded riparian restoration projects in the past. But Lobb studied riparian zones for their filtering capacity and found their impact somewhere between wanting and nonexistent.
Riparian areas are alleged to act like strainers, filtering out nutrients so they won’t enter waterways and end up fertilizing bumper crops of algae in Lake Winnipeg, which then deplete the water’s oxygen when it decomposes, which then suffocates the fish.
The filtering role of riparian zones may apply south of the border in more temperate climates, said Lobb. The problem here is the ground is frozen and the vegetation is still rubbing sleep from its eyes when the runoff occurs. So the vegetation can’t take up the dissolved nutrients.
Which is another thing. Most of the nutrients like phosphorus enter waterways as dissolved nutrients. Again, the reason is our climate. Nutrients will attach themselves to particles of soil. But soil erosion is minimal during spring runoff when the ground is frozen.
“So if you want to reduce the negative impacts downstream, you have to control the runoff,” Lobb said. That means retention ponds. “You have to collect it, hold it, reuse it. It’s really the only feasible way to keep that water, and the nutrients associated with it, on land.”
Wetlands work, too, but they have a limit. They can become overloaded with nutrients and overflow. “This is one of the problems with vegetative filters. You have to harvest the vegetation.”
Phosphorus doesn’t just run off farmland but all land. Municipal practices are a source of nutrients, like with municipal management of effluent.
Natural vegetation on the landscape is another source. One of the sources of nutrients in natural vegetation is municipal and provincial ditches. The ditches represent an opportunity to manage nutrient runoff. How? Cut the grass and remove the clippings. The problem is when the province or municipality mows ditches now, the grass clippings are left in the ditch and contribute to nutrient loading in Lake Winnipeg, Lobb said.
“They just dump the nutrients back in there and guess what happens?” The nutrients are carted off to Lake Winnipeg. “This is a pretty obvious thing,” said Lobb.
Scientists are trying to measure just how large are ditch trimmings to nutrient loading. “It could be a very big source,” said Lobb.
AN ALPHABET SOUP of acronyms greets anyone trying to understand provincial farm conservation programs: EFP, FPT, EGS, ALUS, GROW, IWMP, LMNOP (the last one’s a joke). It’s like steering through a whiteout to read them and try to keep them all straight. IWMP stands for Integrated Watershed Management Plan, for example. EFP is Environmental Farm Plan. EGS stands for “ecological goods and services,” part of the process of trying to monetize environmental issues. ALUS is Alternative Land Use Services, the program started by former Keystone Agricultural Producers president Ian Wishart. While there is now a federal ALUS, the provincial program has morphed into GROW–Growing Outcomes in Watersheds. GROW pays farmers for EGS (ecological goods and services).
It’s a change in government strategy to promote a better environment by incentivizing restorative conservation practices. Wishart felt government programming was too much stick and not enough carrot in the past.
Now, a landowner may return a drained wetland to its former state and sign a 10-year contract to receive a payment of up to 75 per cent of local land rental rates per year for the term of the contract. The payment, determined by local watershed districts, depends on a host of variables including the area, watershed district, project and land prices.
Water retention is precisely the kind of practice being promoted by the Pembina Valley Watershed District (PVWD). It has been aggressively investing GROW and other funds. “There is so much value to (water retention). You improve water quality, reduce downstream flooding and erosion and sedimentation, increase infiltration, which helps our groundwater and carbon sequestration,” said PVWD manager Cliff Greenfield.
The PVWD is involved in the Lizard Lake Project, north of Darlingford on the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. “There was a lake in the 1920s that someone drained,” explained Greenfield. That increased runoff down below into the Red River Valley. A partnership with Duck Unlimited, the impacted landowners, and two municipalities “put a plug in it.” (Pembina Valley Watershed District was not formed yet when this project was initially built, but has helped with the rebuilding effort. The Redboine Watershed District now helps manage the project due to recent watershed district boundary realignment).
A dam was constructed, with some culverts, and retains water in spring. That backfloods three square miles. The water is then slowly released after a month. The drained land produces tremendous hay crops. Some water is also funneled into a square-mile marsh cell so wildlife can continue to raise their brood in the wetland (The nesting is done early in this process and landowners are encouraged to only cut the hay after the middle of July to avoid destroying the nests). So everybody is happy: the wildlife with the marsh, the farmers with the nutrient-rich hayland (removing the hay removes nutrients the crop has soaked up) and the people below in the valley for whom runoff was causing problems. Plus, the delayed and extended runoff provides a longer lasting water source for downstream water users.
Another PVWD project is with Don McLean, a grain and oilseed farmer near Manitou, and councillor for the Rural Municipality of Pembina. McLean farms on rolling topography 15 kilometres from the international border.
McLean has a small earthen dam that retains runoff in a retention pond. The system is on native grass and pasture he once used for grazing when he still kept cattle.
The water isn’t taken from a river or creek or stream but a natural drain that is only active after a rain or during spring runoff and empties into the Pembina River. It’s in a small ravine. Where it narrows has been turned into a “choke point” with a dam. The water held back fills the ravine without having to dig out the earth.
For McLean, the runoff makes a retention pond and then he uses an irrigation pivot to irrigate about 115 acres of crop. Potatoes? That seems to be the main crop irrigated in Manitoba. No, grain and oilseeds. Last year, he put about an inch-and-a-half of irrigation water on canola and got some giant yields. The year before he grew corn. In 2021, it will be soybeans. It’s also great drought insurance.
The majority of irrigation systems pull water out of a river or large aquifer. Or else a producer may pump water into a retention pond.
“The idea is to put water on in late July, early- to mid-August, when you typically don’t see a lot of rainfall,” McLean said.
His dam holds back about 40 acre-feet of water, or 13 million gallons, which is good for about four inches of irrigation water on 115 acres.
In addition to irrigation, it acts as flood mitigation by holding back water, and also keeps nutrients on his land. Lake Winnipeg Foundation is a partner in the project, and runs tests on nutrient loading and other issues to assess efficacy. The project cost in the $65,000 range and McLean could not have paid for it without help from PVWD. A cost-benefit analysis has proven its value, now the question is where it stacks in value up against other projects like protection of riparian zones and fencing off waterways.
ANDY KEEN RUNS a mixed farm near Morden, south of Highway 3. In the 1960s, his father and uncle got out a backhoe and drained about a hundred acres of wetland so it could be used for crop production. It was a time when gasoline sold for 44 cents per gallon, wheat for $7 per bushel, and there wasn’t a lot of regulation on drainage.
Nutrients in the soil made for some very good crops during the dry 1980s. When it got wetter in the 1990s, crops would fail and they would end up seeding late-season forage crops. “We called it the two-in-10 field” because in recent wetter seasons that’s how often the family farm got a decent crop on the land, said Keen.
Keen thought it would be best if the land went back to its natural state and “put Mother Nature’s sponge back in place.” The PVWD helped him do that by funding the surveying and construction of a retention dam. The cost was $15,000, and Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation paid a lump sum to keep the land out of production: $800 an acre times 80, or $64,000. Why was Keen’s dam so much cheaper to build than that of McLean? “It’s always cheaper and easier to restore wetland than create a new one,” said PVWD manager Greenfield.
The restored wetland slows soil erosion, and absorbs nutrients that would otherwise flow into waterways. In dry years, Keen can still harvest the hay, which is also beneficial because it takes up the nutrients that have been building up in that parcel of land (much like cutting and baling grass in roadside ditches would do).
Insects, birds and wildlife have returned, said Keen. Yes, waterfowl feast on the Keen’s grain. When Ducks Unlimited convinced government and property owners to plug drains and restore the Big Grass Marsh some 80 years ago, farmers complained of yield losses from the population explosion of waterfowl feasting on their fields. Keen has seen that, too. “It’s a real problem. There’s no doubt about it,” said Keen, “but we feel the net benefit to society and the environment far outweighs the consequences.”
Keen feels very good about the project today. He thinks “natural symbiosis” has been lost to some degree with conventional farm practices, but senses farmers are pushing back, assisted by watershed district grants.
“I believe exciting times are ahead for agriculture. I really believe in regenerative agriculture,” he said.
The problem as he sees it is mono-cropping. “We try to kill the weeds and only have one crop at a time,” he said. More plant species can make the soil healthier.
He’s started growing cover crops. “Regen ag, to me, is multi-species. Multi-species create natural synergies between soil, microbes in the soil and the creatures above the soil: birds, insects, mammals. We use cattle to do this (to graze fields). We’re going to go back to the days of the great migration of bison. We’re trying to mimic that diversity. When you have multi-species root systems working their magic in the soil, they’re helping the soil release its natural nutrients.
“You know those wonderful feelings when you’re out walking in the morning, when the birds are chirping and the air is fresh and you don’t hear horns and sirens, you just see nature at its finest? That’s what regen ag means to me. We’re trying to change the typical practices of agriculture of the last 40 – 60 years.”
[i] Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, by Shannon Stunden Bower, 2011, UBC Press, Vancouver.
[iii] Manitoba naturalist and educator, Heather Hinam, defines various wetlands this way:
Marshes are shallow wetlands that can flood or dry out. They are rich in nutrients and are overgrown with grasses, rushes, sedges, and other leafy vegetation.
Swamps are like wooded marshes. They are soggy landscapes with waterlogged trees and other plants.
Bogs are acidic wetlands filled with a build-up of slowly-decaying vegetation called peat. They are dominated by sphagnum (peat) mosses and get their water only from rain or snow.
Fens also feature a build-up of peat. However, instead of a lot of sphagnum moss, sedges are the dominant vegetation. They are less acidic than bogs because water flows through them.
[iv] Wet Prairie, Shannon Stunden Bower.