One probably good policy, one disastrously bad policy, and the potential for one great policy

A friend and I were recently discussing how governments should come up with water policies that primarily affect agriculture, and it made me realize that the Manitoba government is simultaneously involved in formulating one probably good policy, is perpetrating one disastrously bad policy, and has the potential to develop one great policy right now that would solve crises, protect land and water, and be a great legacy for any government to leave.

These are:

1) The present proposed drainage regulations, which will stop most new wetland drainage and completely stop the net loss of wetlands and which will make routine drainage maintenance and management far easier for farmers.

2) The present moratorium on hog barn construction across Manitoba that has begun strangling the provincial hog industry to the point that the Brandon Maple Leaf slaughter plant is short 20,000 pigs per week, the company has cut its work force by 400 people and is running its second shift at half-speed, and which is hollowing-out Manitoba’s most successful value-added agriculture sector.

3) Wetlands restoration as flood control. We obviously have a series of massive floods hitting southern Manitoba, ravaging farmland, wrecking rural communities and disrupting the lives of thousands of Manitobans – as well as creating great water quality problems in bodies like Lake Winnipeg. A wetlands restoration policy and program could return large acreages to what it should have always been doing: holding onto some of the water that comes down onto the Prairies in rain and snow and stopping that water rushing into ditches, streams and rivers and causing the problems that are at least partly due to excessive farmland drainage.

Before I say anything more detailed about those three areas, let me lay out my summary of how I think policy should be formulated:

1) Government develops broad policy goals that it clearly states;

2) The government turns to people actually living and operate in the sectors most likely to be affected and asks them how to best achieve those goals;

3) Government then formulates legislation and regulations based on an informed understanding of the real-world implications of what it wants to achieve;

4) Government enforces regulations rigorously but fairly, so those who comply don’t feel they’re being fools when others get away with ignoring them;

5) Government avoids playing destructive, divide-and-conquer politics with policies that will affect crucial sectors of society and the economy.

All of this is pretty obvious stuff, and what most citizens probably think government does when it is formulating policy. Unfortunately, sometimes this doesn’t seem to be the case. Often government politicians hatch policy ideas that seem like good ideas to them at the time, for whatever mix of reasons, then they push a handful of bureaucrats to come up with legislation and then ram it through the legislation process.

In a pleasant recent development, the Manitoba government proposed changes to provincial drainage policies that so far seem to have done everything right. The government came up with notions that most people agree with, such as stopping the net loss of wetlands through drainage, and has proposed an approach that hopefully won’t cause unnecessary grief to farmers and others. This approach looks likely to produce good regulations because it involved the active participation of groups like Keystone Agricultural Producers, which represents Manitoba’s farmers. KAP was involved in the development of the new approach and managed to get the government to commit to making routine drainage maintenance and management easier than it presently is, while supporting the government’s goal of preventing the continual loss of wetlands. Even with wetland preservation, the regulations will probably have necessary wiggle room, allowing farmers and others who need to clear some wetlands to do so, but only if they replace the wetlands they are eliminating with more new wetlands somewhere else.

So here’s some policy that will probably get developed in a cooperative manner and actually come into force with minimal negative and destructive politics. Most farmers I know support environmental protection of many sorts, but become outraged when policies prevent them from doing the practical, reasonable actions required to function as a farmer in the real world. This policy seems designed to work.

The provincial hog barn moratorium is the polar opposite, having disastrous results now and for years to come. Hog and pork production is Manitoba’s most important value-added agricultural sector and Manitoba’s most important manufacturing sector. Yet the Manitoba government has cooked up in the last decade ugly, destructive and unnecessary legislation and regulations that claim to be designed to protect the province’s water quality, including that of Lake Winnipeg, by stopping farmers building new hog barns. This even applies to areas in which local soils are phosphorus deficient and presently import synthetic fertilizer that could be replaced by hog manure. And it applies even though the province has sensibly imposed phosphorus-based manure regulations that prevent farmers from applying more phosphorus in manure than crops can remove. With phosphorus and manure applications in place to stop the over-application of manure to farmland, what is the possible justification for the moratorium?

I obviously don’t know why the provincial government came up with these pieces of moratorium legislation. I assume it’s a combination of factors, some based on ignorance of the real economic impact of its legislation, some driven by a dislike of large-scale industrial agriculture, and some based on politically partisan calculations in which the hog industry is seen as an easy target to please some of the New Democratic Party’s base. That’s not a basis for good legislation.

With Maple Leaf in Brandon now having shed 400 jobs and running its second shift at half-speed, one would like to believe the government would wake up to the realities of bad policy, relax from the worst elements of its approach and end the effective moratorium. But the government might have trouble backing away from policies it has championed unless the public begins realizing the damage being done to Manitoba’s economy. That hasn’t really begun happening.

So we’ve got one good-seeming proposed policy, one disastrously bad one, and now the potential for a tremendously good one.

The potential is with flood prevention and wetlands restoration, which are huge concerns right now. Everyone agrees that the province needs to do what it can to avoid future floods, after living through two Assiniboine River floods and one Red River flood in the last four years. And there is consensus that excess drainage of farmland and the disappearance of wetlands is a significant contributor to the peak flow levels that cause floods.

And many water experts think the best approach to slowing the flow of water into ditches, streams, rivers and lakes is to reverse the trend of wetland drainage and get into wetland restoration. Many water retention ideas are being promoted today, by very bright, reasonable people, including rebuilding wetlands and encouraging farmers to store water in dugouts, and tile drainage has great potential to both get water off the farmland surface while stopping it pouring into waterways. Wetland restoration is something that should bring everyone together and is something the government could do on a large scale in a way that won’t set farmers against downstream interests.

That would require lots of money to buy farmland that should be returned to being wetlands. If farmers are paid for marginal, flood-prone and saturation-prone land, that land can be acquired and converted. Where would the money come from? That’s where I think the provincial government should be willing to reconsider some of its present obsessions and adapt to present conditions. Right now the government is pushing hard to build two multi-billion dollar northern dams to provide hydro power. The economic justification for these dams looked good before the advent of cheap natural gas in the United States from fracking, but now the justification is dodgy at best, as independent reviews have found, such as the recent one by the Public Utilities Board.

So why not cancel the second, more-than $10 billion dam project and put a chunk of that into wetland restoration? Even a small chunk of that seems a better use of taxpayer dollars than an unnecessary mega-dam. A couple of billion dollars would buy a lot of new wetlands and would have the potential to substantially reduce the likelihood and severity of floods. It would provide much-needed habitat for migratory birds, would clean water and protect farmers, small towns, cities and cottagers downstream. It would prevent much of the economic destruction and subsequent compensation we’re stuck with now.

There’s a chance for the Manitoba government to formulate good policy, avoid bad policy, and move away from an old commitment that perhaps doesn’t make sense any longer. Will it embrace the opportunity?

 

 

About the author

Ed White — Ed White has specialized in markets coverage since 2001 and has achieved the Derivatives Market Specialist (DMS) designation with the Canadian Securities Institute.

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