Interview with filmmaker Rick Searle

> Screening March 22 LIVE at OWC 319 6St S, Lethbridge <

So, Rick – what’s your project all about?

RICK: Well, it’s all about preserving, protecting and restoring wetlands on the Canadian Prairies - using a short video to do that. The next step is a book.

How did you first get the idea?

RICK: I’ve made many short documentaries in past, and the idea to produce on this issue started in July 2014, in the aftermath of the deluge that dropped on Southern Saskatchewan and SW Manitoba.

I was flying back home to see my Dad and sister just after that long weekend of rain. I was flabbergasted by the sheer amount of rain lying on the landscape. The Assiniboine River was pretty much a lake all the way down to Brandon, filling the valley bottom. I’d never seen so much water. Dad met me in airport in Brandon and we drove to Winnipeg, crossing the Portage Diversion- which was originally designed to protect Winnipeg from floods from the Assiniboine. But it could not keep up - water was almost coming over top of the bridge. What I saw, in the aftermath of that extreme rainfall event, was that many small towns and communities were devastated by overland flooding. SW Manitoba is where my roots are. This hit close to home. I felt compelled to do something about it.

I spent rest of summer talking with people back in Manitoba about what was needed to address this problem. One of the things people need to have is a better understanding of the importance of wetlands within the watershed, in terms of wetlands acting like sponges or breaks in the watershed, to slow down this kind of overland flooding. This was an extreme rainfall event - over 200 mm within a few hours. Had there been the historic number of wetlands, could they have even held back the overland flooding? Well, I can tell you this: had they not been drained in the watershed above Brandon and in the upper reaches of the Assiniboine extending into Saskatchewan, the overland flooding could not have been as severe.

What were the exact dates of the rain event?

RICK: It started Thursday night on July long weekend pounded down throughout the weekend in 2014. It picked up on Friday and throughout Saturday - and Sunday was the worst day. On Monday, it finally began to taper off.

SW Manitoba is at the end of the pipe. The entire Lake Winnipeg drainage system, which begins in the Oldman watershed, drains down into the SW corner of Manitoba - which is traditionally semi-arid. It’s part of the Palliser Triangle, but because it’s at end of the pipe - certainly in the past 4.5 years - any rainfall event in the basin ends up hitting SW Manitoba.

Where does the water go from there?

RICK: Through the Assiniboine - if it stays within the channel - it eventually ends up joining the Red River, which flows into Lake Winnipeg; but in an extreme flood event, like July 2014 or the spring of 2011, that river is beyond the capacity to move that much water. So the excess is channeled through the Portage Diversion to west of Portage La Prairie, then on to Lake Winnipeg and into the Nelson River and into the Hudson Bay.

So much water has been coming down, that the amount of water that’s now coming into Lake Manitoba is creating loss of shoreline, and windwaves.

Windwaves sound relatively harmless?

RICK: Well, if you own property there … people have lost property they bought, have lost their cabins … many First Nations communities have had to be evacuated also because of back flooding. Many are still living in hotels because they can’t return to where they once lived. The knock-on effects are also causing problems in Lake Winnipeg because water is dumped over. Many people may not realize that this lake is actually a giant reservoir. Manitoba Hydro built the Assiniboine dam (sometime in 70’s) on there, and they continue to regulate these levels. They also continue to take heat from property owners who maintain that Manitoba Hydro is maintaining the water levels too high. They say more water is coming into lake than there used to be … more water is going into Hudson Bay, and it is changing marine ecology. The water is not as saline as it once was, and that changes the ecology around the plume from the Nelson. Knock-on effects are quite dramatic. All the water once captured by wetlands is now just flowing across the land, flowing into the main channels of these rivers, and they are not capable of handling it.

Pearson, a little town in SW Manitoba, got flooded out. There are no creeks and no rivers there. So although there are absolutely no waterbodies near them, the water just roared down from Saskatchewan.

That’s what started this project - seeing how out of whack the watersheds have become within the Lake Winnipeg basin - primarily due to wetland drainage.

I understand this film is self-funded?

RICK: It’s completely independent. I was able to raise partial funding through a number of partners and then I did crowdfunding campaign - but all together, I could only raise half of what I needed. I’m still hoping people will help contribute.

I’m also now doing speaking engagements and so on. I’ve also started to write articles for a variety of magazines, and I hope all the research I’ve done will garner some financial payback for this project.

Why suddenly so much water rushing through the landscape during rainfalls?

RICK: Welcome to the “new normal” - as any climatologist will tell you. We’ve always had variability, but now it’s extreme. So when it rains, it really rains. Increasingly, there will be more and more of these kinds of events. It’s likely that as time progresses, we may see a fundamental change in the hydrograph for the Prairies. Historically, the bulk of water came in the spring with snowmelt and runoff from glaciers. Now that glaciers and snowpack are retreating, the amount of water in spring is declining, and the amount of water in late summer is increasing. Our oceans are warming, giving up more water into the atmosphere, which condenses over the Rockies and must fall somewhere as rain - so we see freak storms. There is a massive amount of water dumped in a very short time.

Other parts of world are also facing this – England, Texas (previous desert areas have received massive downpours in short periods of time) ... We’re embarked upon a huge experiment that has no control when it comes to climate change - there’s a profound impact. While the focus is now is on these extreme rainfall events, I can tell you that at least three climatologists I have talked to have expressed a much deeper concern – and that is over prolonged droughts.

Records within soil profiles show that there have been extensive drought periods, but there is no human memory of these kinds of things. Even our memory of the ’30’s is fading. The average age of the Canadian farmer is around 64, so not many people that remember the 30s. Their experience of drought is maybe the drought of about ’81, ’82, ‘83. That was a 2-year drought - it was severe. Ranchers were dumping cattle on the market because there wasn’t feed. Manitoba was sending hay to Alberta and Saskatchewan that were hard hit by droughts.

So, climatologists think of the drainage of wetlands as extremely short-sighted. Wetlands are buffers against drought. Wetlands being drained means there is no buffer when these droughts come. It’s not a question of “if” - it’s just a matter of time. The economic and social impact is huge – urbanites may not realize this. The drought of the early ‘80’s hit to the tune of 5.6 billion. This past summer was not nearly as severe as the one in the ‘80’s. The historical records show decade-long droughts in the past. Under climate change, droughts can last up to a quarter of a century. The impact is mind-blowing. The top ten most costly natural disasters in Canadian history have been droughts - not flooding. We are still very tied to agriculture. In Canada, drought is more deadly than flood.

With this video, I’m using the voices of the people who are on the land - not scientists, not experts in the stretch of the usual term, but using people very close to the land in small communities. They see what’s going on and are affected by it.

I’m hoping the message going out is that we really need to rethink how we handle wetlands.

So at this stage of the game, what, realistically, can be done for wetlands?

RICK: Clearly, the most important thing is that more urban populations must be brought onside and made conscious of the watersheds in which they live, work, and play. People are out of touch with watersheds. RBC’s Blue Water initiative (Royal Bank of Canada) does a survey every year about water. One of the disheartening things that comes out year after year, is that people don’t know where their water comes from, where it goes, or what happens in between.

You need to wake up and pay more attention if you want to maintain your beaches and lakes and not pay heavily for water treatment and don’t want to lose your cottages to high lake levels. If you want to retain your natural attributes, you need to be more engaged with the policies that govern the land - and particularly wetlands.

My prime audience is urban - to get them more engaged. I do believe very strongly that regulations alone won’t do the job. We need to come up with solid payment structures for ecological services. This means landowners receive long-term payment for ecological services for people living downstream - particularly cities.

That’s a lot of information for a short film – can you tell the whole story?

RICK: In a 15-minute video, you can only touch on highlights - which is why I’m writing a book that can drill down into the complexities of how payment for ecological services have worked in the rest of the world, and how they can work here. I’m reaching out to the senior staff of municipalities because they are bearing the biggest costs for poor water quality. There is a 123 billion dollar deficit in Canada around infrastructure. The amount of revenue required versus the costs of repairing and upgrading aging infrastructure like water treatment plants, bridges, and roads is short of cost by about 123 billion. Municipalities are all feeling the pain.

So what can Reeves and Mayors do?

RICK: Make it known to senior levels of government. The federal government has taken a hands-off approach to wetlands – and beyond coming out with a strategy - they have left it up to the provinces to implement it.

That’s standard federal procedure, though – what, in your opinion, needs to change?

RICK: This will be forced to change because of bottom-up pressure. Mayors need to pressure their MPs and MLAs to address the issue of wetland drainage. You can get a good idea on Google Earth if you zoom in on the Prairies. One of the things - in addition to developing programs around payment for ecological services – is to put more money into the monitoring and enforcement of regulations in these places. All Prairie Provinces are developing new regulations, which appear to put more emphasis on wetlands, but whether there is the political will to back it up with serious enforcement and monitoring is another thing. We need more staff on the land.

As we’ve seen in 2011 and 2014, the hostility between the provinces is growing. Manitoba is accusing Saskatchewan of dumping water on Manitoba. SE Alberta and SW Saskatchewan accuse Alberta of water dumping.

The days of the Wild West are coming to an end. Everybody lives downstream of somebody. With interprovincial pressure building over water, the Feds will be pressed into action – no other entity can intercede. Bottom-up pressure from Mayors and Reeves, backed by citizens, will put pressure on provinces to have more backbone, to have better policy - and pressure will be felt on the MPs in the federal government.

How do you think this film will help?

RICK: We’ve taken wetlands for granted for so long. I feel the economic and social costs of that ecological damage have now reached the pain point that people can’t ignore it any longer. These kinds of behaviors are beginning to cost big time, for everyday people. We are on the cusp of some basic paradigm shift in regard to how we treat the land. I hope this film will go a long way to helping us understand that clean, clear drinking water isn’t something we can take for granted anymore. Wetlands are our water tanks.

Thank you for your hard work on this project, Rick –
We look forward to sharing it with everyone at our World Water Day Film Festival in Lethbridge on March 22nd.

Rick can be reached at: /
Facebook: / Twitter: @ricksearle

The film “Wetlands Matter” can be found on Vimeo at: