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Water Today Title November 27, 2020

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Wetlands Management



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By Gillian Ward

The Quill Lakes of the Canadian prairies came up during an international forum for wetlands conservation, held in Dubai in late October. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands follows the ecological status and trends of wetlands of international significance. Professor Patricia Farnese of University of Saskatchewan College of Law attended the Dubai forum. She told WaterToday that the flooding of the saline lakes was discussed specifically in Dubai, including Canada's failure to report the site's status. Ms. Farnese went on to say that it appears there are no plans to deal with the urgent flooding crisis, nor does there appear to be a long-term solution in the works for preventing a natural breach of the closed basin.

Wetland areas play a critical role, absorbing run-off, handling fluctuations in weather and water levels, being the natural filters that keep our lakes and waterways clean. Since the Quill Lakes flooded together in recent years, vital wetlands have disappeared. Dr. Peter Leavitt has been studying the Quill Lakes as part of the longest running lake study in Canada, at 25 years and counting. Dr. Leavitt told WaterToday that the level of the Quill Lakes has gone from 514 m in 2006 to a peak level of 521 in 2017, which is the highest recorded level to date. While the basin has not spilled over yet, it is getting dangerously close.

Environment Canada's real time hydrometrics data shows the current water level at 520.4 m, just one metre away from the tipping point. Dr. Leavitt tells us that there are thousands of linear kilometers of drainage ditches of questionable legality channeling run-off from agricultural fields, contributing to the flooding risk.

A proposal put forward by the Quill Lakes Stewardship Group and the Lower Qu'Appelle Watershed would have opened a channel to divert water directly into Last Mountain Lake, home of North America's oldest bird sanctuary and habitat for the vulnerable Bigmouth Buffalo fish. Saskatchewan Alliance for Water Sustainability (SAWS) organized a public campaign petitioning the federal government for an Environmental Impact Study prior to any diversion of water. The diversion proposal has since been withdrawn. As of Nov 29, there is no plan to divert water around the Quill Lakes, says Dale Hunter, media spokesperson for Saskatchewan Environment. SAWS spokesperson Aura Lee MacPherson is relieved that the diversion plan has been withdrawn for now but remains concerned that there appears to be no alternate plan. Sask Environment did not offer a response to Water Today about alternative plans.

If the lakes spill out of their basin next spring, an emergency response could very well be made, circumventing an assessment. Whether a natural flood or an emergency diversion happens in the future, Dr. Leavitt says there will be long-term environmental impacts. A report modeling the anticipated impacts of flooding or planned diversion is available through SAWS. Dr. Leavitt addressed the Treaty Four Gathering Sept. 14, 2018 drawing attention to just how much salt could hit the Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area if the Quill Lakes spill over. 50 000 metric tonnes of salt. Five Calgary Towers worth of salt. We tried to reach Natural Resources Canada for comment on the anticipated effect of this spill, whether intentional or accidental. To date, NRCAN has not provided a response.

Dr. Dave Sawchyn, of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, does climate modelling for the Prairies. In a telephone interview with Water Today, he expressed his concern for the lack of a plan to deal with spring run off and anticipated flooding. The solution needed for the Quill Lakes is not only technical, but social and political, Dr. Sawchyn says. Land owners have been flooded out, but they still have to pay taxes. Sending excess water down the Qu'Appelle channel is not a responsible option.

Admitting this is a challenging problem, simply sitting by and doing nothing is not an option. Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF) monitors fish populations an Speaking with a senior Biologist in private industry, Water Today learned that a full Federal Environmental Impact Study could take two years or more d habitat. SWF Executive Director Darrell Crabbe told WaterToday that any action that simply shifts the problem of the Quill Lakes from one site to another is not a viable or sustainable option. "Until an Environmental Impact Study is done, SWF cannot support any action plan", says Crabbe. to complete. So far, no such study has been requisitioned. WaterToday will follow and report any new developments.


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