Study aims to provide new tools for farmers dealing with excess moisture

Dr. Selena Randall, research development co-ordinator, watershed systems research program, U of M.

The creeks, sloughs and marshes that run through Manitoba's prairie landscape are vitally important to the productive farmland we enjoy. Unfortunately, as we've seen too often, these water sources can also be the agents of destruction when they flood.

Research being conducted in part at the University of Manitoba (U of M), and sponsored by Manitoba Conservation Districts Association, is looking at how we can improve the way we manage surface water on agricultural landscape. The project is still in its early years but has the potential to change the way Manitoba deals with flooding, excess moisture and water retention.

Reducing flooding and nutrient losses

"Traditional surface water management schemes in the Prairie region involve networks of shallow surface drains and schemes to flood land temporarily, releasing it later when the drainage network can handle the volume," says Dr. Selena Randall, research development co-ordinator, watershed systems research program at the U of M. "However, on some soil types this results in an increase in the losses of phosphorus from flooded soils."

Randall is co-ordinating a multi-partner project that is looking at the concept of storing water in places such as retention ponds to reduce flooding and nutrient losses. Beyond simply storing the water, the team is researching how water moves, the sediments and nutrients it distributes and how the decisions farmers are making affect water quality.

"Manitoba has two main problems related to water," says Randall. "We have too much water in the spring and the nitrogen and phosphorus that is beneficial to agricultural land can be detrimental to our lakes and rivers. The flooding is moving those valuable nutrients from where they are needed, to where they can do harm. The result is increased costs for farmers and signs of nutrient stress in our lakes – particularly in Lake Winnipeg."

Randall says a potential solution may be that farmers take responsibility for their own water. That could involve everything from creating retention ponds for runoff, planting water tolerant crops and using irrigation.

She recalls one example of a landowner who used a tile drain system, where he inserted porous pipe across his field at intervals that drained into a retention pond. The system allowed him to get on his field much faster than farmers around him who were slowed by flooding. Researchers will study the system to determine how water and land quality were affected.

The research project was funded in part by Growing Forward 2's Growing Assurance - Ecological Goods and Services program. Growing Forward 2 funded equipment for particle size analysis and nutrient analysis.

More tools for farmers

"Conservation Districts have a network of sites across Manitoba where they have worked with landowners to develop water management schemes to reduce flooding, create wildlife habitat and improve water quality," says Randall. "This network will show us how different water management options are working for the landowner and for the environment."

Conservation District staff will collect soil, vegetation and water samples at some of these sites, the data from which will help researchers in this and other projects.

"We hope to have the results of our study by 2017," says Randall. "Our goal is to give landowners more tools in their tool boxes when they are looking for a solution to deal with excess moisture. We also hope it will give us more knowledge to help reduce nutrients in our lakes."

Supporting research important to farmers

There aren't a lot of private funds available for projects like this surface water and nutrient management study as there often is for other areas of research," says Daryl Domitruk, director in Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development's Agri Innovation and Adaptation Knowledge Centre. "Through Growing Forward 2 we are able to allocate funding to equip environmental programs that are important to farmers."

The largest source of agricultural crop insurance payout in Manitoba is for damage caused by excess moisture. Finding a solution to the problem is a risk management tool.