It’s July 25, 2015 and Aura Lee MacPherson is thrilled. She just wrapped up the first “We Love Our Lakes” water festival in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.
MacPherson spearheaded the one-day event to bring attention to water quality issues in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Saskatchewan Deputy Premier Don McMorris and MP Andrew Sheer attended the festival, along with several hundred citizens who share a love of the lakes.
Three days later, MacPherson’s jubilation turns to frustration. And disappointment.
MacPherson learned that the City of Regina had released approximately 15 million litres of screened sewage into Wascana Creek, which flows into the Qu’Appelle Valley watershed. The city released the sewage to relieve pressure on its sewer system following a torrential rainstorm.
MacPherson is a business owner who is passionate about the environment and water health. Like many in the Qu’Appelle Valley, she and her family enjoy summer activities in the picturesque region’s lakes and beaches.
She’s seen water quality gradually decline. In 2014, after extensive flooding overwhelmed stormwater storage capacities and the City of Regina released screened sewage into the lake system, MacPherson decided she’d had enough.
“We were hurt, mad and angry about the water quality in our beautiful lakes. We did some research and it showed us that people are passionate about the water and want to do something, but do not know what,” says MacPherson.
MacPherson formed an Ecomuseum Committee. She chairs the group, which encourages people to find sustainable solutions for a healthy Qu’Appelle Valley watershed. The Fort Qu’Appelle water festival was their first event.
Most of this summer, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. struggled with drought.
It meant water restrictions and lots of forest fires. For producers, it meant reduced crops.
One year ago, floodwaters in many of these same areas were wreaking havoc on farmland, washing out roads and driving people from their homes. Blue-green algae, caused by nutrient build-up, kept families like the MacPhersons from enjoying their favourite lakes.
MacPherson believes the torrential rains that overwhelmed Regina’s infrastructure and swept sewage into her beloved lakes, is just another sign of radical weather to come.
Riders on the storms
Scott Lees has seen his fair share of Prairie weather extremes. He’s part owner and general manager of Soderglen Ranches Ltd., a 2,000 head cow/calf operation with locations at Fort McLeod, Cardston and Airdrie in Alberta.
Like all producers, Lees keeps his eye on the weather. It’s the nature of the beast. And if it’s not drought, he’s keeping an eye out for other potentially damaging weather. Hail and early frosts are frequent visitors to Alberta.
“The hardest times come when extreme weather conditions occur consecutively over a three to five year period,” says Lees. “That is when a lot of ranchers and farmers have no other option than to exit the operation or reduce the size of their herds.”
The drought has made life difficult for producers. The real challenge will come if dry conditions stretch beyond this year.
Wetlands: buffers for balance
Floods one year, droughts the next.
“It used to be rare to see these events piggybacking each other so quickly,” says Pascal Badiou, research scientist with Ducks Unlimited Canada’s (DUC) Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research (IWWR). Badiou is leading a number of studies that examine the impacts of wetland loss in Canada, particularly on the Prairies.
He views this more frequent cycling between drought and floods as symptomatic of climate change. And a growing body of research, including his own, shows wetlands are the frontlines of defence.
“Natural wetlands protect the landscape during extreme rain events by absorbing excess water and preventing it from inundating nearby land and water bodies,” says Badiou. “By the same token, in times of drought, they retain water on the landscape, slowly releasing it into surrounding areas. They are hugely important in maintaining stream flow.”
Picture wetlands as the fulcrum in a scale, keeping the ecological balance. “Wetlands are hotspots for amazing biodiversity of plants and wildlife during droughts, unlike any other ecosystem,” adds Badiou.
In fact, research from IWWR and elsewhere suggests that when wetlands are removed from the landscape, the carbon they store is released into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change – it’s a vicious cycle.
With up to 70 per cent of wetlands already lost in settled areas of Canada, so too is a critical line of defence for our environment, our economy and society’s well-being.
Adapting to new realities
At Soderglen Ranches, Scott Lees describes the land management practices they’ve incorporated that will help them ride out the next bout of extreme weather.They have partnered with DUC at McBride Lake to restore wetlands and upland habitat. This produces more reliable grazing for cattle…and better nesting habitat for waterfowl.
“We have about 1,200 acres (485 hectares) of wetland restoration projects and conservation easements on our land, and we run cattle on approximately 1,800 acres (728 hectares) on forage contracts with Ducks Unlimited Canada that, in dry years, has especially helped lessen the worry. If we didn’t have these, we’d be in real trouble.”
Channelling a passion for wetland conservation
Combating wetland loss is an uphill battle. But people like Lees and MacPherson are on the conservation frontlines, fighting to keep wetlands an integral part of our environment. For all our sakes.
“Although we have seen some progress in private landowner appreciation of wetlands, we are nowhere near the ‘critical mass’ of understanding required for broad scale behavioral change,” says Shane Gabor, DUC’s head of policy strategies for the Prairies. He’s garnering support for new research as part of an ongoing, multi-stakeholder initiative titled “Building the Business Case for Wetland Conservation in Canada.”
“After 60 years of wetlands slowly being lost through drainage and development, we’re now seeing the landscape effects and the many implications of this loss, especially in extreme weather situations,” says Gabor.
“If we can improve the understanding and appreciation by governments, landowners and the general public of the environmental and economic values wetlands provide, we stand a better chance of having effective provincial wetland policies aimed at conserving or restoring wetlands.”
Aura Lee MacPherson understands this all too well. She’s doing what she can to make a difference.
The Regina deluge in late July has fueled her resolve to speak out against polluting waterways and draining wetlands. She continues to encourage people to take responsibility for their water resources.
“Our lakes are suffering. They are screaming for help. People are passionate about the water and the valley. Protecting wetlands and educating people about wetland values are important.”
MacPherson’s focused on building a healthy future for everyone, especially her kids’.
“You build family memories at the cabin and when you see toxic blooms developing at the lake and your children cannot swim and create memories of their own, it’s heartbreaking. Will our children’s children have natural resources to enjoy? Not if it stays like it is.”
Drought: Water off a duck’s back?
Periodic drought is essential to rejuvenate wetland vegetation and recycle nutrients,” says David Howerter, DUC’s director of conservation science. “Wetlands thrive when exposed to occasional dry periods, and respond quickly and productively when the moisture regime returns to normal levels.”
Ducks are well-adapted to periodic drought conditions. Some species, like pintails, will bypass arid areas, settling in relatively drought-proof areas like northern Canada or Alaska. Others, like canvasbacks, prefer more permanent wetlands. If those water bodies dry up, they’ll seek water elsewhere; it’s highly unlikely they’ll breed. Mallards, North America’s most populous duck, will attempt to nest and renest, but as water disappears, they’ll give up and wait it out on large lakes, rivers and reservoirs.
Most concerning to conservationists, however, is the potential threat to wetlands if the dry conditions persist.
“History suggests that in a dry year, we’ll see increased wetland drainage and consolidation, both of which impart long-term or even permanent damage to ecosystem productivity. Our ducks and other wildlife have learned to withstand temporary drought, but there’s little defense for permanent wetland loss,” says Howerter.
While solutions to climate change can be costly, we know that working with nature is one of the simplest and most cost-effective actions we can take. Explore the relationship between wetlands and flooding in Ontario in this video.