The government of Manitoba has offered up a rather paltry sum toward the startup of the newly formed Assiniboine River Basin Commission.
In a press release, Premier Greg Selinger yesterday announced the government’s intention to give $50,000 to help the commission get started, while merely paying lip service to the obvious — that Manitoba needs to work with the governments of North Dakota and Saskatchewan.
That much has been obvious for years.
But what is more worrisome is the lack of leadership from our provincial leaders to move forward on the very real problems facing the Assiniboine River valley and the residents who live at the mercy of the floodwaters.
Simply put, it shouldn’t have taken this long for the province to understand it needs to work with our neighbours to deal with long-term water management and flooding issues on the Assiniboine River basin. It wasn’t for lack of information on the challenges facing the river basin.
The Red River Basin Commission was already quite aware of the fact that a similar organization was needed for the Assiniboine watershed back in 2007, following a Lake Winnipeg conference in November of that year organized by the Partners of the Saskatchewan and the RRBC.
According to its website, RRBC officials visited with Assiniboine River residents in co-operation with Manitoba Water Stewardship to determine whether there was enough interest to form an organization that would work in concert. A government-funded report identified the interest in the Assiniboine River basin that would utilize the RRBC organizational model and link to the already existing commission.
Though a meeting was held in Brandon in 2008 to get the ball rolling, that initiative seems to have fizzled. But excessive and destructive flooding along the Assiniboine River, most notably in 2011 and again this summer, breathed new life into the idea.
In April 2013 — nearly two years after the 2011 flood — the province’s Flood Review Task Force finally issued its report, which, among other things, suggested that “co-operation and communication is needed between Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the U.S. to help ensure that information and strategies are shared.”
But the province and the federal government have been aware of the need for better management of the Assiniboine basin for more than a decade. Back in the mid-1990s, the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Canadian governments conducted the Upper Assiniboine River Basin Study, which offered a comprehensive snapshot of some of the challenges facing the region.
The need for the study stemmed from several issues identified by these governments, including the 1995 flood, increased agricultural and municipal land drainage, flood control and the startling disappearance of valuable wetland habitat.
This study eventually gave rise to the creation of the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, which was established back in 2002 to manage and protect water quantity and quality within the province. Two years later, the organization established two watershed advisory committees within the Assiniboine River Watershed “to lead the planning and decision-making process,” according to the SWA’s website.
A similar process did not take place on this side of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. In fact, while there have been a few attempts to form an Assiniboine River Basin Commission in the past, only now — after a whole lot of water under the bridge, so to speak — are we finally seeing some definitive movement to create a similar watershed stewardship.
Ironically, the leadership for its creation is not coming from the provincial government as it well could have.
Last fall, the Prairie Improvement Network, formerly known as the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council, took up the cause by creating the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative, pulling together government officials from North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and other interested organizations and conservation districts in the region.
The fledgling commission has created an interim executive committee, and during a meeting in Minot, N.D., yesterday to discuss the organizational structure and membership.
So what are our government officials doing? In the past few weeks, our politicians have been arguing whether new infrastructure to drain Lake Manitoba can be completed in three years or seven years.
Never mind the fact that continued use of the Portage Diversion is dumping tons of phosphorus from farmers’ fields into the lake and destroying that body of water, as pointed out by an editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press this week.
That said, we give the Progressive Conservatives some credit for suggesting the province offset the costs of maintaining wetland and grasslands in western Manitoba through the Alternative Land Use Services program. Unfortunately, the cost of such a program may well negate its effectiveness.
One of the larger criticisms of paying producers to maintain wetlands is that farmers can usually make more money growing a cash crop — at least when farmland remains flood-free.
If we are to truly address flooding issues along the Assiniboine River Valley, it will not come at the behest of our provincial leaders, who seem more interested in jockeying for votes in Winnipeg than actually solving problems in western Manitoba.