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Envisioning the Watershed of the Future

Matthew McCandless and Dean Medeiros of the Water Innovation Centre present on a hypothetical watershed at the Lake Winnipeg Basin Summit, held in Winnipeg, Canada, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2010.

This future watershed has attained a sustainable environmental and socioeconomic equilibrium through the development of a bioeconomy—an economy in which the basic building blocks for industry are obtained from renewable sources. This vision reduces non-point nutrient loading in the watershed, while simultaneously strengthening the agricultural sector. It provides greater resilience to droughts, floods and high fertilizer prices, while simultaneously generating new value chains for agricultural wastes and ecological services.

Central to the "Watershed of the Future" concept is the harvesting of agricultural residues, as well as the restoration of wetlands and shorelines, from which plant materials could also be harvested. The "Watershed of the Future" seizes upon the impressive nutrient uptake potential of wetland plants (e.g., cattails) and aquatic vegetation (e.g., duckweed), and recognizes that the nutrients locked within these plant fibres could be recaptured. In total, non-point phosphorous loading to waterways could be reduced by 25 to 95 per cent.

Once harvested, this plant matter would be processed in biorefineries—industrial plants that take biological materials as their inputs—and turned into high-value products such as cellulosic ethanol, bioplastics and pharmaceuticals. Through these biorefineries, phosphorous and nitrogen would also be recycled back into agriculture as fertilizers, thereby decreasing Manitoba's reliance on fuel-intensive nitrogen fertilizers and phosphorous imported from mines.

In addition, the "Watershed of the Future" takes an innovative approach to wastewater treatment, proposing that the approximately 400 wastewater treatment sites in Manitoba could become part of the bioeconomy through the creation of constructed wetlands that would not only clean the water and provide wildlife habitat, but also grow raw materials for processing in biorefineries.