Digging ditches or removing ditch blocks requires agency approval
By Karen Briere
A Saskatchewan farmer who was recently convicted and fined under Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency legislation says he believes he is meant to be an example to others as the province moves to tighten drainage rules.
Gerald Faye, who farms north of Lestock, admits one of 14 ditch blocks on his land was removed, but only because water was flooding the only access road to several fields at seeding time.
“It was an emergency,” he said.
Removing the block cleared the road but sent the water toward a neighbour, who complained to the agency, and not for the first time.
That neighbour could not be reached for comment.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people around here are ditching and none have permits,” Faye said.
“They want to make an example of me.”
Agricultural drainage is nothing new, but widespread flooding in 2011 led many to dig ditches or trenches to move water off their land and highlighted the problems that it causes.
The agency received numerous complaints about the impacts from those who were flooded as a result and those concerned about the effects on the environment.
The law requires landowners to receive approval for any activity that moves water off their land or alters existing drainage works.
Agency officials say many complaints about work undertaken without approval are handled co-operatively at early stages.
Some, like the one involving Faye, move to a formal complaint process and end up in court. After a two-day trial, during which Faye represented himself, he was fined $11,200 for failing to comply with an agency order.
Although his neighbours formally complained in 2007, Faye said the land was first ditched years earlier when his father owned it.
Ditch blocks were put in 15 years ago, but his father later removed them, he added.
“He sold the land to me, and the (Water Security Agency) said they had to be put back,” Faye said.
“I appealed it.”
He argued that water should be allowed to take its natural course but lost the appeal.
He decided to dig a large dugout on his land to catch the water from the many potholes that fill up in spring and solve the problem by keeping the water in one place.
However, the contractor couldn’t dig the reservoir deep enough to hold all the water before it filled during wet years.
The agency ordered Faye to put in the ditch blocks, and he said he first tried to do it on his own. When he eventually decided to hire a contractor, he said he couldn’t line one up to do the work in time to suit the agency.
He agreed to help the agency construct the blocks and pay the bill, but when he arrived on site the work was underway and, in Faye’s opinion, not being done properly.
They were scraping up good black topsoil rather than using clay from the ditch slopes, he added.
“They were ruining good land and there was no way to pack the dirt,” he said.
“You need clay to pack it down tight.”
As a result, one of the ditches later washed out.
Faye said he was accused of not maintaining the blocks where his renter harrowed and left a wheel mark near one that caused a trickle of water, and of removing one block.
He admits to the latter, noting the need to move water off the access road and get it running on its natural course toward the neighbour.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he said. “Land that’s meant to be farmed should be farmed.”
The water table in the area is high. A nearby lake, which hasn’t been full since 1951, is now full and the main grid road north of Lestock toward Faye’s farm, which used to run straight, now has a large detour around more water.
Faye said many farmers have bought scrapers or contracted others to move the increasing water in the last 10 to 15 years.
The issue is particularly acute in east-central Saskatchewan, which is typically wetter than other areas.
Faye, a former councillor and reeve of the rural municipality, said he understands the need for wildlife and bird habitat. At one time he built dams for Ducks Unlimited.
However, he said farmers also have to be able to earn a living.
“This has been a nightmare,” he said.
“It’s a farce what they did to me. The judge didn’t listen to any of my witnesses.”
The government conducted an online consultation last fall and this spring on how to better address drainage issues. Legislation is ex-pected next year.
Meanwhile, Ken Cheveldayoff, the provincial minister responsible for the WSA, said he was surprised to hear recent complaints from Manitoba that agricultural drainage from Saskatchewan was affecting that province.
He said he hasn’t heard any concerns.
“We’re very cognizant about what downstream effects there might be,” he added.