Study finds Souris River operating plan in good shape

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A final report from the International Joint Commission has found the current operating plan for the Souris River basin to be in solid working order.

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A final report from the International Joint Commission has found the current operating plan for the Souris River basin to be in solid working order.

The operating plan has been in place since 1989 as part of an international agreement between the governments of Canada and the United States. The International Joint Commission (IJC) established the International Souris River Study Board (ISRSB) in 2017 to explore the water management in the Souris River Basin, which is shared by the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the state of North Dakota.

Now that the final report is complete, stakeholders can establish a path forward with the governments, said Rob Caldwell, Canadian Senior Engineering Advisor liaison to the Souris study board and Souris River board.

The historic suspension bridge in Souris dangles just above the flooding Souris River on June 29, 2011. The International Souris River Study Board wants to use public input to decide on water levels to mitigate flood risks. (File)

“The good news is that the current operation plan, the 1989 agreement, was found by the study board to be working very well in terms of flood control and water supply,” Caldwell said.

The key findings and recommendations of the International Souris River Study were prepared by the IJC in October 2021. There is some room for improvement on aspects of the plan, he said, and the commission is looking forward to having continued dialogue with both the Canadian and United States governments regarding the study and commission findings and recommendations.

The report evaluated and reviewed the existing 1989 operating plan, including examining strengthening water supply and flood control, addressing emerging water management concerns and increasing engagement with Souris River basin stakeholders.

The study identified five operation measures that could be strengthened: winter drawdown elevation targets, extending the winter drawdown to March 1, lowering maximum spring flow limits, summer operations and appointing a year shift to water year.

Water management remains essential as climate variability and changes are taking place in the Souris River basin, said the report, and these challenges need to be addressed. There were also concerns with aquatic ecosystem health, although this was not directly investigated by the study. Continuous monitoring would be beneficial, it said, especially when it comes to exploring interconnecting water quantity and quality monitoring.

The IJC recommended the ISRSB use the modelling tools developed in the study to continually assess the operational performance of the agreement through adaptive management studies. It was also recommended the ISRSB engage in climate change projects to improve data gathering in the basin to better understand how climate change is impacting hydroclimatic conditions, develop modelling tools and pursue adaptive management of the operating plan.

The IJC encouraged the Canadian and American governments to also expand their current water quality parameter lists to gain a more robust understanding of water quality and ecosystem health conditions.

The findings are in place to benefit the stakeholders in the basin, Caldwell said. When extreme conditions occur, some measures can be taken to reduce impacts based on recommended improvements.

“We’ll certainly get intelligent people who can adjust that and find ways to reduce flood impacts … or at least mitigate them to the extent possible through the basin going forward.”

In terms of droughts and other conditions brought on by water supply, he said, there is also room for improvement. The IJC will bring a team together to look at these issues and find recommendations for the governments to guide potential actions in the future.

The findings of the board were encouraging because they showed the current operating plan is working well in terms of water supply and quality, Caldwell said. However, the commission is looking for an agreement from the governments to set up new committees under the ISRSB.

One of these includes a revamped aquatic ecosystem health committee with clear roles and responsibilities concerning the water quality mandate.

In terms of items such as natural flow computation, Saskatchewan and North Dakota are looking at ways of improving that computation to make it more efficient and effective going forward, Caldwell said.

“That will certainly facilitate the exchange of information.”

One key recommendation to come out of the study was the need to increase engagement with Indigenous nations within the Souris River basin. Caldwell said this was a critical aspect of the study and they are developing a package that will be sent to various chiefs and councils of Indigenous communities in the watershed.

He said the committee will be unable to have representatives from each community but is looking for a significant number of Indigenous representatives to sit at the table moving forward.

“We have proposed to the governments to permit the IJC to establish an Indigenous advisory committee under the existing International Souris River board,” Caldwell said. “We’ll be looking for representatives to be nominated from each of the communities within the watershed.”

Conversations about the maintenance of waterways in the Souris River basin will continue in the coming months with the Canadian and American governments to ensure they understand the findings and recommendations, Caldwell said. These collaborations may include the development of work plans, establishing priorities and finding other opportunities.

Members were pleased ISRSB management volunteered to develop a list of what they accomplished and learned to share with the commission, Caldwell said. This was done in the hopes it can improve water management across the Trans-Canada basin based on what has been learned in the Souris River basin.

“I think that is an excellent initiative and we really, greatly appreciate them taking that time to develop that document.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

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