For years, Manitoba has battled water. Cultivating life on a flood plain has meant makeshift dams and dikes, and eventually multi-million infrastructure projects such as the Red River Floodway. How has the fight against floods shaped Manitoba society? We spoke with historian Shannon Stunden-Bower, author of Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, to learn more.
Water Canada: Your book discusses how decisions made about how to deal with flooding and drainage has shaped the province’s landscapes and prairies. What made you want to explore this evolution?
Shannon Stunden Bower: I’m interested in the relationships between people, environments, and governments in historical perspective. I think these relationships are particularly important in water management because of how water flows across property lines and is typically expensive to manage. Government often becomes a key means through which people work together to address water problems that would overwhelm individuals. Manitoba, a province situated at the low end of a large drainage basin and prone to flooding, experiences particularly acute variations on the water management challenges that exist throughout the world. So the province made an excellent location for a case study on the connection between social, political, and environmental change.
During research for your book, did you come across any particularly striking documentation of these debates? What kinds of proposals did people bring forward? Was there anything especially forward-thinking?
In the course of my research, I found at the Archives of Manitoba one of the most striking documents I’ve yet discovered in my work as a historian. Soon after the 1870 creation of the province of Manitoba, the head of the new provincial government instructed Legislative Clerk F.E. Molyneux St. John to study local factors bearing on agricultural settlement. St. John’s report emphasized “the number of muskegs or swamps which are found in several parts of the province.” He recognized that, from an agricultural perspective, these could mean trouble. “It is not unreasonable to assume,” the report concluded, that the “land which a settler should be entitled to take up must in some measure depend on the nature of the country.”
St. John is considering if, because of Manitoba’s surface water situation, the province should employ a land management system different from the grid-based township system that was ultimately adopted and that is now so characteristic of the prairie region. Given that many of the surface water management challenges in Manitoba relate to the ways boundaries of property and jurisdiction fail to align with underlying geographical patterns, it is interesting to think about how the contemporary situation might be different, had St. John’s recommendation been taken seriously.
Problem solving around floods and drainage in Manitoba continues even to this day. How are you staying involved as things progress?
I had the opportunity to give the keynote at the recent Manitoba Water Summit, a seminar focused on the problems and opportunities related to surface water management in the province. I’ve found many Manitobans quite receptive to the possibility of learning from the province’s history of flooding and drainage. I hope I can continue to take advantage of opportunities to spread the word about the particular geographic features that define the province’s surface water situation, as well as the history of local efforts to ensure security and prosperity in the face of repeated flooding.
You’re going to participate in the development of Manitoba’s new surface water strategy. What’s your role going forward?
My role is to study the decisions made by politicians, administrators, and Manitobans at large. I’ll be glad if today, in the here and now, we manage to make progress on the important issues we are facing. Recently, there has been public and scientific attention to the issue of nutrient loading and resultant algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg. These potentially dangerous blooms have a significant impact on Manitobans’ ability to use the lake in various capacities. Scientists are doing what they can to explain the processes that lead to these blooms, such as increased phosphorus throughout the Lake Winnipeg drainage basin and the role of higher Red River flows in conveying phosphorus to the lake. I think an important insight coming out of this work for Manitobans might be that the lands and waters of the province need to be managed in coordination with each other. This is, in fact, the same conclusion I’ve come to through my historical analysis of the failures and successes of flooding and drainage in the province. Manitoba’s location at the bottom of an extensive drainage basin means that the challenges to water management are particularly acute in the province. But because of this, Manitoba has an opportunity to lead in developing progressive solutions to the sorts of problems that exist, in a variety of ways, throughout the world.
Win Wet Prairie
|Wet Prairie brings to light the complexities of surface water management in Manitoba, from early artificial drainage effort to late twentieth-century attempts at watershed management.
Author Shannon Stunden Bower engages scholarship on the state, liberalism, and bioregionalism in order to probe the connections between human and environmental change in the wet prairie. The book reveals how Manitoba’s biophysical nature has been an important factor in the formation of Manitoba society at the provincial state.
How have water-related decisions helped define your province or territory?