Over much of the prairies that became farmland, there were little sloughs, potholes surrounded by bush and grasses. There were marshy wetlands where the spring run-off would sit, only slowly draining over a period of weeks and months . This meant that near potholes and wetlands that planting and seeding was often delayed or impossible altogether. If the crops were to have twelve weeks or so of frost free growing and harvest, the sooner the farmer could get on to the land, the better. Therefore, draining the sloughs, cutting out the surrounding bush and cutting channels to drain the wetlands offered not only more land, but the promise of early seeding, and a good fall harvest. Before the 1980s, less than a hundred years after immigrants and their descendants flooded prairie “farmlands”, the vast majority of the sloughs and wetland had been drained. Not only did this mean early seeding, it now meant that ever more massive farm machinery didn’t need to negotiate with the trees or troublesome wet areas. This would save time, gas and money. A no brainer!
In early 1980s, a handful of farmers had been talking, who farmed on the Manitoba Escarpment, a high land in south central part of the province.These included Gordon Orchard, Les McEwen, Bill Turner and a dozen or so others. Peristent concerns were the eroding top soil, lack of soil moisture into the growing season, wiser use of fertilizers and herbicides. Conservation practices that had proved successful nearby, and elsewhere, were intriguing . This included the planting of tree “shelter belts” to gentle the force of winds and store some of the later needed spring moisture; reduced tillage; and the use of small dams to hold back the corrosive rush of spring run-off and land damaging storm rains.
Prior to this, the federal government had been investing tax dollars into research and local innovation in varied conservation practices for the well being of land and water. For decades the government ‘s Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association had been acting on the the need to re-think the “bigger, faster,more and more” mantra. Bigger and bigger acreage, faster and faster on to the land, more and more fertilizer and herbicides was the “common sense” approach. Such farm practices had fueled the dramatic payback from sister-mother nature of the 1930s dustbowls. They also were contributing to the sickening of the soil and severely damaging the wetlands, potholes and creeks whose essential well being meant the long term sustainability of prairie agriculture. The PFRA had been researching and rehearsing farming practices and tactics that were both conservational and productive. These drew on the minority practices of farmers here and there across the prairies.( For example, Les and Bill’s own dads had long been grassing their water channels with thick matted broom grass.) With good timing, the PFRA’s Harry Hill came to join this gang of enquiring young farmers around Gordon Orchard’s kitchen table, atop the Manitoba Escarpment.
Together they walked the land, these headwaters of Tobacco creek. Tobacco Creek, in many a spring and summer storm it spit, no, poured torrents of devastating water into the plains and Morris and Red River below…taking topsoil as it went. They examined three near forgotten little dams constructed by a local municipality decades before, which confirmed this ginger group’s growing sense of the workability and wisdom of small dams. With the help of PFRA and local know how, the emerging Tobacco Creek Watershed Association began figuring out where the dams would be placed and which kind.
The first small dam was built on Les McEwen’s farm in 1985. By 1996, the initial project of fifty-two dams were completed. This series of small dams did and do the important job of slowing the flow of Tobacco Creek and its tributaries. A storm that might pour torrents of water for three or four hours might now be slowly released over three days with the use of Dry Dams. Gated Dams hold back water for two weeks and longer allowing the farmer to retain some water for animals or needy field crops or pasture. Several dam types researched by the PFRA meant appropriate small scale constructions adaptable to the particular character of the terrain. These structures not only meant happier soil and friendlier water for the farmers on whose land they were constructed.Rivers and lakes downstream benefitted from water with less soil and fewer algae feeding nutrients.This cluster of little dams also means that fields, riverbanks, roads and bridges are being largely spared of devastating assaults of flood waters below the little dams of Tobacco Creek watershed.
Local governments and beyond can now see the wisdom of investing in such configurations of small dams and not needing to be continually replacing roads, bridges, culverts after yet another ”storm of the century.” Nevertheless, the dominating “common sense” is still “ faster on to the land, bigger and bigger acreage, more and more chemically addicted agriculture and soil”. The question of who benefits from such a mind set gives way to how can more fast drainage ditches and channels be built. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Tobacco Creek watersheds little dams are there to see and are in the process of being added to in a another area of the watershed.
How did the Tobacco Creek watershed project manage to happen? It happened because a number of small seeming separate groups and activities came together, co-operated to take on a a recognizably shared problem. The problem was to work with the good water of the watershed, allowing it to nurture the soil and its growth, and help the water regain its earlier manner of not flushing the soil downstream in flood torrents.
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)