Opinion: Prairies need a water and weather strategy

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By Ralph Goodale

Member of Parliament for Wascana

With so many people across a broad swath of Saskatchewan and Manitoba grappling with the consequences of heavy rains and sudden summer flooding, everyone's attention right now is riveted on helping those at risk, mitigating damages, cleaning up the mess, proper compensation arrangements, and then the long task of rebuilding.

In typical prairie fashion, all hands are willingly on deck to do whatever is necessary to alleviate the emergency and deal with its aftermath.

Not including the negative economic impact of having thousands of hectares of farmland out-of-production and a large portion of the oil patch inaccessible, Premier Wall is estimating out-of-pocket costs in Saskatchewan far exceeding $360-million.  He has asked the federal government for a $100-million "cash advance", to help speed compensation payments to victims.

The Feds need to get that cash flowing quickly, just as Canadian military personnel were put into action quickly in Manitoba when Premier Selinger asked for help in strengthening dikes along the Assiniboine River.  Much more will be required in both provinces, but assistance efforts are underway.

For the longer term, many people are wondering whether we have to be as vulnerable to such water and weather-related damages as we seem to be.

Saskatchewan faced a similar situation with storms and floods in 2011.  Last year there was massive devastation caused by rampaging waters in Calgary and across southern Alberta.  And it wasn't that long ago that the problem was the opposite -- i.e., extreme drought conditions causing hardship.  Whether it's too much or too little, nothing stirs more prairie agitation than water.

It's increasingly difficult for the skeptics to dismiss the recurring reality of far more frequent and extreme weather events.  Some provinces, many municipalities, a number of important players in the private sector and a large percentage of Canadians agree that some form of "climate change" is real and must be treated seriously.  Only the federal government remains in denial.

But without wading too deeply into that issue right now, as important as it is, what should governments have on their agendas immediately to reduce future risks and mitigate losses?

The Saskatchewan government is talking about some better way of handling unauthorized on-farm drainage that ultimately flows cross-country.  We'll see what comes of that.  What else?

At the federal level, the Doppler weather radar system is now old technology.  It's prone to failure, like the Doppler station at Bethune which has had chronic problems for the last four years.  Also, the network of stations is too sparse.  And there is no comprehensive way to push out vital warnings to the general public.  This could be much improved.

And what about emergency planning, training and overall preparedness?  Federal budget cuts ended a long-standing program which local governments had relied upon for years to help get themselves ready to cope with natural disasters and other emergencies.  This could be re-examined.

The loss of PFRA should also be reconsidered.  Over the past five years, the federal government dismantled the historic Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration which, since the Dirty Thirties, provided the best western expertise in water and soil conservation and management.  PFRA also ran community pastures, operated a prairie tree farm and provided world-class flood prevention and control measures.

And on another front, federal infrastructure programming has been reduced, delayed and made more difficult to access.  This year's funding for the flagship "Building Canada Fund" has been cut by 87 per cent and won't get back to last year's level until after 2019.  There could be much more priority given to urgent transformative infrastructure investments that will help anticipate and withstand recurring severe weather and water disruptions.

Where do things like this rank on YOUR list of public policy priorities?

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Assiniboine River Calgary Southern Alberta

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Recent comments

  • dan
    July 08, 2014 - 21:09

    Your plan on where to put a 8 inch downpour is lacking Mr. Goodale.Were you one of the many lefties laughing at Grant Devine for building the Rafferty? Where will the water come from to fill it?Remember that Goodale?Seems like you have been around forever but i guess i was wrong.

  • Christine Penner Polle
    July 07, 2014 - 16:04

    Ralph Goodale is absolutely correct when he points out that it’s past time for the Prairies to have a comprehensive and coherent water and weather strategy, and touches on the increasing number of extreme weather events across the region and North America. Part of that strategy needs to be a price on carbon pollution. Scientists who study climate have been warning for decades that our burning of fossil fuels is increasing the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Higher levels of C02 are directly linked to more extreme weather events like torrential downpours and droughts that result in more floods and wildfires, taking an increasingly high toll in human and economic costs. Luckily there is a straightforward, small “c” conservative solution to this global problem, one that would transform Canada from a laggard to a leader on this issue. Pricing carbon pollution at the source (mine, wellhead, or border crossing), and returning the money collected to households (carbon fee and dividend) is increasingly recognized by economists and thought leaders from both sides of the political spectrum as the way to tackle this issue. Polluters would finally pay the true cost of carbon pollution, instead of socializing the cost of their pollution. Not only that, the economy (and individual Canadians) would get a boost, and the climate would be stabilized for future generations. What are we waiting for?