What 'enormous' wetland loss is costing Manitoba

Manitoba loses, on average, 4½ football fields worth of wetlands every day — a trend scientists say is doomed to continue so long as the province fails to enact a meaningful conservation plan.

Scientists, conservation groups want more movement from Pallister government on wetland protection

An American bittern eats a barred tiger salamander in a duckweed and algae-covered marsh in southwestern Manitoba. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Manitoba loses, on average, 4½ football fields worth of wetlands every day — a trend scientists say is doomed to continue so long as the province fails to enact a meaningful conservation plan. But really, what have those slimy cesspools done for you lately anyway, besides belch legions of mosquitoes into existence?

"A lot of people still haven't been convinced that wetlands are valuable," says University of Manitoba ecologist Gordon Goldsborough, a specialist who studies how human activity impacts wetlands.

"There's still a prevailing view among many people that the sooner they're drained and made into productive farmland, for example, the better."

Manitoba has no comprehensive wetland management strategy, and as Goldsborough said, part of that comes down to the fact that wetlands aren't of any obvious worth to the casual observer, city slicker, politician — or even some farmers.

Without a robust system of checks and balances, and driven by a growing demand for agricultural products, farming operations have helped decimate "an enormous amount of wetlands" in southern Manitoba over the past century, Goldsborough said.

About 3.6 hectares of wetlands, equivalent to 4.5 football fields in size, are lost every day in Manitoba, Ducks Unlimited says. (CBC News Graphics)

Arable land is a precious commodity across the Prairies, so to get the most bang for their buck, farmers have drained wetlands on their property and filled them in with soil and marketable crops. While there are some protections in place, for the most part this practice has been allowed to go on for decades.

Converting wetlands to farmland over the past 30 years has led to more than 100,000 hectares of wetland loss in the south alone, according to Canada Ducks Unlimited (DU). Roughly 70 per cent of historic wetlands in the southwest are gone, as are 90 per cent in the Red River Valley.

$7.7M 'ecological deficit'

All of that loss amounts to an "ecological deficit" that ultimately hits taxpayers in the pocketbook, says Scott Stephens, director of the Prairie region for Ducks Unlimited.

"Wetlands provide green infrastructure because they provide flood storage, they clean water, they store carbon, they do all these things, even though that's not what most people you'd meet on the street would think of when you talk about infrastructure," he said. "[We're] trying to create awareness of a more holistic view of what infrastructure is."

At 4.5 football fields worth of wetland loss per day, Manitoba lost an estimated 1,329 hectares of wetlands in 2016. (CBC News Graphics)

To illustrate the point, the waterfowl conservation organization estimates about 880 hectares of wetlands disappeared between May 2016, when Premier Brian Pallister officially took office, and Jan. 1, 2017, at a cost of $7.7 million in ecological goods and services.

Nature's kidneys

In order to understand where that dollar amount comes from, the term "ecological deficit" needs unpacking.

On top of being some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, wetlands are often called nature's kidneys. They filter out pollutants and excess nutrients like phosphorus from water, and help combat climate change by sucking carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases from the environment through a process known as carbon sequestration.

We need to, right away, get on putting the regulations in place that will stop these losses so we can begin making progress.— Scott Stephens, Ducks Unlimited

They also provide flood storage, as Stephens said, acting as pools for water to spill into during spring snow melts and rains.

Since the Pallister government was sworn into office, Manitoba has lost about 1.8 billion litres of its flood storage capacity due to wetland degradation. Stephens estimates it would cost over $6.6 million to restore those lost ecological services.

During the same eight-month time span, about 1.5 tonnes of phosphorous and 88 tonnes of nitrogen have leached into surface waters in the south, rather than wetlands, which can contribute to toxic algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg. It would cost about $320,000 to remove that excess phosphorus and $869,000 to remove the nitrogen, Stephens said.

Not pointing any fingers

Stephens doesn't blame the new government for the decades-old problem, but he, Goldsborough, the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Wilderness Society and the Manitoba Water Caucus are concerned the province hasn't moved on any wetland protection policy since taking office.

"We're not saying, 'Hey, this is the new government's fault that this has gone away. It's just saying, 'Since you've been in office, these losses continue to occur and we need to, right away, get on putting the regulations in place that will stop these losses so we can begin making progress," Stephens said.

A greater yellow legs stands on one leg in the water in at Whitewater Lake, about 240 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

More than 10 years of consultations with conservation and agricultural groups, including Keystone Agricultural Producers, went into drafting NDP surface water management legislation (Bill 5) that never saw the light of day. 

It died on the house floor in the weeks before the provincial election, but included a "no-net loss wetland benefits policy," among other mitigation measures meant to cut down on nutrient loading and boost restoration efforts.

"We would like to see that if the [current provincial government] is going a different route that they would take the same kind of care that was taken with Bill 5 to consult people from across various sectors," Megan Krohn with the Manitoba Water Caucus said.

Incentives for farmers

In a statement to CBC News, Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox said an alternative land use services (ALUS) program is in the works that would "provide incentives for landowners to protect wetlands, including limiting drainage and restoring wetlands."

A 'Class 3' or seasonal wetland is defined as one that is flooded until about the end of June every summer. (Ducks Unlimited)

"We plan to work with the Keystone Agriculture Producers, municipalities and other stakeholders to make sure we get the design of the program right for our province," Cox said in a statement.

"We think that good rules for drainage, better protection for wetlands, and incentives to protect ecologically sensitive areas are the right mix to combat flooding and contribute to habitat conservation."

The most effective policies in other jurisdictions have combined regulation with restoration to address wetland loss, Stephens said.

Paying rural landowners to restore or maintain wetlands on their property could help, as would implementing mitigation legislation that forced corporations and farming operations to recreate even more than they might destroy as part of a project.

A 'Class 4' or semi-permanent wetland is defined as one that is flooded throughout most of the summer or occasionally dry by fall. (Ducks Unlimited )

It takes thousands of years for nature to produce the unique chemistry and interconnected relationships of tiny aquatic invertebrates, algae, vegetation and other wildlife found in a given wetland.

That can't be artificially duplicated overnight, which is why some jurisdictions in North America force landowners, government or corporations to replace three times or more of the amount of wetlands they destroy, Goldsborough said.

"The idea [is] that you may not completely replace the function of one that is lost with one of equivalent size," Goldsborough said.

Stephens said whatever legislation gets passed needs to include protections for Type 3, 4 and 5 wetlands. Those categories, which are based on wetland depth and how much water they hold, provide the most in ecological goods and benefits, Stephens added.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.