Prairies Need To Manage Water Better

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The Canadian Prairies face a sea of water issues in coming years, but there’s still time to craft a “win-win- win” scenario, according to a leading water expert.

“Everywhere, water is in demand for food production, cooling for energy generation and for mining as well as manufacturing and domestic use,” Howard Wheater told attendees at the recent Irrigation and the Environment conference in Lethbridge.

“And, here and elsewhere, floods are one of the most damaging of natural hazards. Add in climate change and there’s a perfect storm brewing over water resources.”

Wheater is head of the new Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. The goal of the new institute, which is receiving $30 million in funding over the next seven years, is to address water issues ranging from dealing with industrial pollution and nutrients from farms to mitigating the impact of drought and flooding.

“We have to confront a lot of issues to achieve safe and sustainable use of our water resources and meet our transboundary agreements,” said Wheater, a world expert on hydrology and managing freshwater resources.

“We have to put limits on water licences and manage for a balance between agriculture and the environment.”

Wheater, whose work has taken him as far afield as India and Pakistan (to help settle a dispute over a dam on the Indus River), called Saskatchewan a “microcosm of global issues.” For example, the South Saskatchewan River is critical to the province but 75 per cent of its water originates in the Rockies and only one per cent in Saskatchewan watersheds. And, as in other regions, the river has reached the limits of its use. Its natural flow has dropped 12 per cent in 90 years, mostly in the last 30 years, Wheater said.

The Prairies have more options than other regions, he said. Around the world 1.4 billion to 2.1 billion people now live in water-stressed areas, largely because unsustainable water extraction and pollution have dried up rivers and groundwater reserves. Some predict six billion people will live in water-scarce areas by 2050.

Wetland restoration

The days of assigning water rights to anybody or any business that needed water are over, said Wheater.

Instead, the focus has to shift to improved water management, he said.

On the Prairies, restoration of wetlands may be a key part of that, he said. Peak phosphorus concentrations in run-off from urban and agricultural areas are causing nutrient overload and algal blooms, including toxic blue-green algae, in lakes. Wetlands can not only absorb nutrient loads before they reach the lakes but also reduce flooding risk and provide drought resilience, said Wheater.

Scientists from his institute have also been monitoring this spring’s run-off, collecting data on the hydrological and ecological effects of flooding, and the role of Prairie potholes in physical and ecological systems. This sort of basic science will be increasingly valuable in future years, he said.

But the institute will also look at ways to deal with drought – and that scenario may not be far off. Wheater noted research has shown that long periods of drought ranging from 10 to 35 years were common on the Canadian Prairies during the last five centuries.

“The challenge is likely more frequent drought and more prolonged droughts,” said Wheater.

Even without major weather events, dealing with growing populations and increasing water demands will be a major challenge, he said. But it is one that can be met, he insisted.

“Balancing the competing demands on our water resources is a matter for our whole society,” says Wheater. “It’s a governance issue that needs good policies. To make good policies, we need good science that will allow us to understand the effects of our actions. That would allow us to develop better, science-based BMPs (best management practices). If we get this right, we can have a win, win, win.”



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