Ecological engineering a new way to say use our natural systems to clean up waterways

Back in the good old days we went to work in a plant to make things. Today, we are learning to let plants do the work for us. This was the essential message of a panel of experts about using natural assets to work with and even replace some of our engineered infrastructure to deal with waste and run off from urban environments.

What does all that mean? Simply that natural wetlands, sloughs and urban forests can do much more of the cleanup in our communities than we have allowed them to do over the past century.

Brought in by Winnipeg’s Metropolitan Region (formerly PMCR) Executive Director, Colleen Sklar, the panel included Roy Brooke, Principal at Brooke & Associates; Michelle Molnar, Environmental Economist at the David Suzuki Foundation; Chris Weber, Senior Manager at Deloitte in Climate Change & Sustainability; Mark Anielski, Present and CHO at Anielski Management Inc.; and Bob Sandford, EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health who engaged in a two-day conference with local mayor, reeves and civic administrators called Keeping Manitoba Liquid.

In practical terms, the panel discussed the need to incorporate natural assets – urban forests, natural water features, natural drainage systems – into community balance sheets, and then to put these assets to work for us.

According to a report prepared for the Ministry of the environment in Finland, 2008, “Growing recognition is now being given to “soft” or “ecological engineering” options, in which attention is given to sound environmental management as a form of structural defence, instead of steel fabrications, poured concrete or shifted rocks. Limited, but increasing, evidence now shows that good environmental management can play an important – and cost-effective – role in reducing many of the risks posed by natural hazards.”

“There is a real value in these natural assets that needs to be recognized. Every day, decisions are being made on how to provide services to our communities without taking these assets into account. Keeping Manitoba Liquid was the beginning of a much larger conversation, one that will allow us to ensure we are measuring and managing our natural assets in tandem with our traditional asset management framework in order to realize our full return on investment,” said Collen Sklar.

The town of Gibsons, British Columbia (the town made famous by the TV show, the Beachcombers) is leading the way in Canada, using natural features to handle rainwater, floods and water purification. For a look at how this works, visit https://youtu.be/Sc5z197VOW0.

Gibsons has obvious run off potentials with a visible network of creeks and aquifers, but so does Winnipeg and its surrounding communities. In the city, many of these natural creeks, tributaries and rivulets have been forced underground, hidden, drained or channelled into other former waterways as in the case of the former Colony Creek, which once ran through the centre of town near the Royal Alexandra Hotel (Main and Higgins) but was diverted to Omand’s Creek that runs near Polo Park and empties into the Assiniboine.

Another creek, now nothing but a memory commemorated by a plaque, is Sinclair’s Creek (once called Ross’s or Brown’s Creek), which ran east from Princess along William to the Red river, but which was filled in way back in the mid 1890s.

If you look at a close-up map of Winnipeg, you can see vestiges of other water systems, now chopped into minor basins (we call them man-made lakes) to handle rainwater, but with much of their natural flow either sent underground or completely filled in.

The trees and natural plants that followed these waterways were destroyed to make way for development. Over the years, to replace the natural assets, we have built costly networks of sewers and drainage systems that often become overburdened when there is a big rainstorm or during a fast spring thaw. We also spend billions trying to clean up the water we foul in our everyday lives.

Municipalities are now beginning to see that restoring natural systems can reduce costs and eve do a better job of drainage and clean up than we have been doing artificially.

One of the recommendations of the conference is to try a pilot project here in Manitoba to see how much using our natural assets can save us and where they can do a better job.

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