Solution for flood-prone Manitoba wetland divides farmers, conservationists

Drainage channels proposed for a massive wetland in southwest Manitoba have conservationists concerned for the long-term health of hundreds of thousands of birds and tiny aquatic creatures that have relied on the marsh for thousands of years.

Whitewater Lake outlet channels could prevent farm flooding — but could it also hurt biodiversity?

Two flooded buildings lie in a state of disrepair at Whitewater Lake. (Christian Artuso)

Many people living in Winnipeg have experienced the frustration of a flooded basement in the spring.

A heavy rain or a big snow melt floods the basement, and the solution usually is to pump the water down the sewer, dry out the soggy carpet, isolate the leak and patch up cracks in the foundation to prevent future flooding.

But instead of a home in the city, let's say you owned a farm on a plot of land that flooded and backed up like a non-flushable, clogged toilet each spring and there was nothing you could do to fix it — where does the water go then?

It's an imperfect analogy, but it's not far from what some farmers in Boissevain and the rural municipality of Deloraine-Winchester have been facing for the past several years in southwestern Manitoba. They have been calling on the province to do something to alleviate flooding of agricultural lands around Whitewater Lake, and they might be one step closer to getting what they want.

Bird haven floods farms

Whitewater Lake is a massive, salt-rich wetland that spans an area one-quarter the size of Winnipeg.

It's also a migratory bird haven, but it continues to cause headaches for landowners in the area, some of whom have been asking for the construction of drainage outlets on the lake for several years.

But officials with conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Bird Studies Canada and Nature Manitoba say the flooding is a symptom of a much larger problem, and the wetland needs to be protected, not drained.
A colony of great egrets and cattle egrets nest on Whitewater Lake every summer. This snowy egret nested on the lake a few years ago. It was the first of its species documented breeding on the lake and only the second confirmed instance of snowy egret nesting in Canada ever recorded. In 2015, 14 snowy egrets were seen on the lake. (Christian Artuso)

"Whitewater Lake itself is a provincial wildlife management area, a candidate heritage marsh, an Important Bird Area and a priority migratory bird habitat of Canada. It has all of these designations that say, 'Hey, this is really a unique and important area,'" said Scott Stephens, director of the Prairie region for Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Drainage is a 'dirty word'

Farmers have lost thousands of hectares of cropland to floods, and while some just want the lake brought down to a sustainable level, the reeve of Deloraine-Winchester said it isn't about drainage, per se.

"I would prefer for it not to be called drainage; kind of makes it into a swear word," said Gord Weidenhamer, the reeve of the rural municipality of Deloraine-Winchester. Instead, he speaks of controlling the lake level.

The lake sits at a low point on the horizon just north of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. As the crow flies, that's about 15 kilometres northeast of Deloraine and 240 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

Historically in southern Manitoba, heavy rains and snow melt could trickle down and out onto the Prairie, spilling into hundreds of thousands of potholes, ponds and marshes. It still does but to a far lesser degree, because we filled those natural basins with dirt, planted seeds and set down a path toward the modern agricultural era.

Whitewater is a terminal basin and one of only a few endorheic lakes in Canada, which means there are no creeks or streams leading into or out of the basin.

That makes it rare, but it also means levels shift dramatically from year to year; it rises and floods, dries and shrinks based on the conditions.

According to the Manitoba government, the lake is about 8,300 hectares in size, although estimates vary year to year. In high-water years, it can swell to well over 10,000 hectares.

The area the lake spans now far exceeds what it likely did historically, Weidenhamer said.

"I'm actually out looking for some cattle right now," Weidenhamer said. "The lake fluctuates with the wind … and of course the lake has pushed the water away [from the side of the pasture], and the cattle walked around the fence and now I am out looking for them. They're lost."

Whitewater Lake is located in the southwest corner of Manitoba, about 240 kilometres from Winnipeg. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

During the flood of 2014, Whitewater was so high that people in Deloraine feared the town could flood.

Realizing that "it's taken out thousands and thousands of agricultural acres" in recent years, Weidenhamer said community members from Deloraine-Winchester and Boissevain-Morton formed a committee and came up with a plan: "Not to drain the lake, but to control the level of the lake" by digging one channel to the west and one to the north to send excess water downstream, he said.

The municipalities submitted a proposal to the province through engineering firm KGS Group. It includes plans for gates at each of the channels that would act as release valves and aim to keep levels on Whitewater at 496.2 metres (1,628 feet) above sea level. According to the proposal, that's 1.8 metres below peak levels reached in 2013 and 1.3 metres from the lake bottom.

Water finds a way

The lake has no natural outlet, but water always finds a way. Since 2011, Weidenhamer said, some of the flood waters have begun spilling into west-flowing Medora Creek, which feeds the Souris River.

"It actually doubled the size of Medora Creek and really jeopardized some infrastructure and the town of Medora, as small as it is," he said. "They had to sandbag buildings and they've never had to do that in history, and that's something I think we can control."

American bitterns also nest in and around Whitewater Lake. (Christian Artuso)

With the channel and gate system, the hope is that outflowing water would eventually make its way into the Souris, which snakes through the southwest about 70 kilometres west of Whitewater Lake. The gates would only be operated during non-peak times from May 15 to Oct. 30, and "only when downstream flows were low," the proposal states.

Ideally, in time the soggy fields in the area would dry out and again be usable for agriculture.

Stephens said there currently is no way of knowing what effect dumping those waters into surrounding creeks would have further downstream.

'Turned into a Devils Lake'

Weidenhamer said many landowners impacted by the floods care about the wildlife that depends on Whitewater Lake, which includes 40 species other than birds. He said much of that biodiversity — roughly 110 bird species and 250,000 birds call the lake home — is no longer densely concentrated on the lake itself, but is now spread out along the peripheries of the lake's floodplain.

This Aug. 24, 2010, photo shows an unoccupied house that is surrounded by the green algae from Devils Lake, which flooded the southeast side of the town of Devils Lake, N.D., in 2009. (Dave Kolpack/Associated Press)

"The waterfowl, anybody who really knows that lake, they'll know the actual waterfowl is now in private properties," he said. "The natural diversity is spread into private property, and all these people are asking for is to farm their land."

A public viewing area on the south side of the lake has been lost to waves lapping up and over the shoreline, Weidenhamer said.

"It's turned into a Devils Lake, slowly growing," Weidenhamer said, referring to a growing endorheic lake in North Dakota. "If we get into extreme times, it's going to be a disaster again."

Impact on wildlife

The landowners' proposal seems too narrowly focused on the nuts and bolts of building drainage outlets on the lake and doesn't take into account possible long-term side-effects on wildlife, Stephens said.

A buff-breasted sandpiper forages along the soggy peice of vegetation on the Seal River in northern Manitoba. The species breeds in the High Arctic but relies on Manitoba grasslands as a key stopover points during migration. (Christian Artuso/Bird Studies Canada)

"We got here because we didn't have the right rules in place to keep this from happening, but at the same time, the solution probably lies in restoring some of that storage in the watershed," Stephens said. 

"You definitely feel for the producers right around that lake. They've had whole fields that have disappeared, which is clearly a hardship for them. We understand that."

Protection for wetlands lacking

The practice of filling in wetlands was allowed to go relatively unchecked for decades.

According to Ducks Unlimited, southwestern Manitoba alone has lost 102,400 hectares in the past three decades. That's equivalent to losing about 4½ CFL football fields of wetlands every day for 30 years, the organization says.

More than 70 per cent of all historic wetlands have disappeared from the landscape in southwestern Manitoba; 90 per cent of all wetlands in the Red River Valley are now gone.

Last fall, Ducks Unlimited and other stakeholders worked with the previous NDP provincial government on legislation that would chart a new path with more protection for wetlands. Bill 5 still hasn't been passed since the April provincial election brought in a new Progressive Conservative government.

It would have been ideal to have a more robust system in place before the Whitewater proposal was submitted to the province, Stephens said.

Levels on Whitewater Lake have been high in recent years, flooding out observation walkways and some nearby agricultural land. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"When you zoom out, the real issue here is that we haven't had good regulations around drainage. This is a good example of why that's really important to get in place sooner rather than later, because if you don't have those rules in place and drainage continues, you just make these problems worse. This is a prime example of that."

The Quill Lakes in Saskatchewan and Devils Lake in North Dakota have some of the same flooding issues as Whitewater, and for the same reasons.

A public consultation period for the channel outlets ended at the end of May. A provincial spokesperson confirmed the drainage channel proposal is under review.

Unlikely to receive protection it deserves

Bird Studies Canada biologist Christian Artuso, who has committed his life to watching out for threatened wetland bird species, would rather expand the wildlife area than drain the lake.

"Whitewater Lake is an ecological treasure and rather unique in Manitoba. The existing [Whitewater Lake management area] could be expanded to encompass the numerous nearby ephemeral wetlands, which are extremely important, and the area should be promoted for the extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities it offers," Artuso said.

"Perhaps due to other interests, that is unlikely to happen, but it would be of most benefit to Manitoba as a whole, both ecologically and economically."