Drinking water supply declining in southern Manitoba amid extreme drought

A drought emergency has been declared for a large portion of southern Manitoba.

People in an area covering 14 municipalities, including the cities of Morden and Winkler, are being asked to conserve water.

The Red River supplies the area with water, among other sources, but levels are declining and flows are dropping.

Residents like Mel Edel of Morris have been asked to cut back on water usage.

"Well actually this morning, I was getting washed up and I thought, wouldn't it be terrible if we didn't have any water," Edel said. "We take it so for granted, you know. It's unbelievable."

The Pembina Valley Water Cooperative supplies water to 14 municipalities, Roseau River First Nation and a Hutterite colony.

It draws from Stephenfield Lake and the Red River to supply 50,000 people with drinking water in an area that covers roughly 9000 square kilometres. Extreme drought has officials worried about the Red running dry.

"Just significant reductions in the flow," said Greg Archibald, CEO of the Pembina Valley Water Cooperative. "Yes, there's lots of water in the Red right now, but it's the rate at which it's going down that has us concerned."

Archibald said flows on the Red at Emerson, Man. are down from 1532 cubic feet per second at the end of June to 477 cubic feet per second.

It's not only the volume of water in the river that has him worried — the level of the Red River is even making it difficult to pump it out to supply people's taps.

"The water level in the river has dropped so low that we can't use our normal intakes, and so we've had to bring pumps in from Winnipeg to be able to pump the water out of the Red," he said.

The pumps now help supply a significant portion of southern Manitoba with drinking water.

The City of Morden, which draws some water from the cooperative, is also dealing with low levels on Lake Minnewasta. The lake supplies the bulk of the community with water, prompting mandatory restrictions on usage — no watering lawns, no washing cars at home or filling swimming pools with city water.

"We are in a state of emergency," said Gord Maddock, Morden's deputy mayor. "We're trying to get people to buy in and they are."

Commercial and industrial users have also been ordered to cut back.

Kevin Pauls, a board member for the Minnewasta Golf and Country Club, said the course has stopped using city water and is now sourcing wastewater from the city and water from a creek to keep the greens alive.

"People need to understand we're working with the province and with the community to do the best we can," Pauls said. "We're not here to take people's drinking water just to keep a golf course running. We're just doing the best we can in order to mitigate that."

The province said flows on the Red River are low but not unprecedented.

It said based on data and the long-range weather outlook, the chance of the Red drying completely is less than one per cent and that water should be accessible during low flows and over winter.

Archibald isn't as confident.

"If it gets too low and it freezes, will there be no flow underneath the ice," he said.

The cooperative is working on contingency plans to store water and maintain supply as the water recedes.

Edel said his family already stopped watering their garden. He's hopeful the cooperative will continue to supply water, but he's already planning for the worst.

"Well, we have a few ponds around here. We could go back to them," Edel said. "We used to use that for water."

The province said it's also working with the cooperative to address operational challenges in accessing available water.