Immersed in producing a video about the loss of wetlands on the prairies, I’m thinking of all those farmers and ranchers confronted by a severe drought that now grips southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, the southwest corner of Manitoba still hasn’t dried out from 3 unprecedented floods in the past 5 years. Many farmers down there are hovering on the brink of financial ruin. It is very fortunate that the area only suffered minor damage from a long lived tornadic supercell which moved across that region on July 27th. It could have been the thing to tip many of them over.
Wetlands are vital subsystems of a watershed. In times of flood, they can hold back a great deal, while in times of drought, they can provide water essential for maintaining crops and livestock.
But over the past 40 – 50 years, wetlands have been reduced by 70 – 90% within the Lake Winnipeg watershed which encompasses southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, as well as parts of Ontario, Minnesota and North Dakota. They are estimated to be disappearing at the rate of 80 acres a day. That’s equivalent to 45 soccer fields day in and day out. Mind-boggling.
The issue of wetland drainage is as controversial as it is complex. Many farmers are fully aware and appreciative of the benefits of wetlands; however, the pressures of the market push them to maximize yields from every acre. And so, wetlands are drained and plowed under.
But as a consequence, they leave themselves vulnerable to the extreme variability and unpredictability of the climate that is the “new normal.” And when they suffer a severe flood or prolonged drought as has been the case of late, a great many people who depend on the agricultural sector for their social and economic well-being feel the pain as well. The two year drought of 2001 and 2002 delivered a nearly $6 billion blow to the GDP of Canada. The most recent climate models indicate that we could see up to decade long droughts on the prairies. This would not be unprecedented; it has happen before in the planet’s not so distant past. Can you imagine how devastating that would be?
One of my guiding lights has been the great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who said many years ago:
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
We urgently need to come up with ways to protect and restore wetlands as essential cogs in a watershed, while being fair with farmers. These ways exist and only need greater public support, especially from those dwelling in the cities and towns and who generally do not see or understand their dependence on wetlands within the watershed they live and work.