Alberta nudges farmers on water regulations

The Alberta government encourages farmers to do the right thing as a way to avoid the penalty part of enforcement

It was once the obscure domain of behavioral scientists, but nudging is now a global enterprise.

Companies, governments and non-government organizations are constantly devising strategies to “nudge” the public in the right direction so that people make healthy, sustainable and ethical choices.

The Alberta government is employing the nudging approach for its new wetlands policy.

Alberta Environment doesn’t want to penalize or fine farmers who drain wetlands. Instead, it wants farmers to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

“We don’t want a heavy handed (approach),” said Thorsten Hebben, director of surface water policy with Alberta Environment.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to come down with a hammer.”

Alberta introduced its new wetland policy in 2013, and the rules for implementation in the province’s agricultural region were released last year.

The new rules allow landowners to drain wetlands, but if they do, they must mitigate the loss by establishing a wetland of equal value.

“We’re not saying, for example, a farmer cannot drain a wetland. He or she can, in fact, do that. We just like them to do it through the appropriate regulatory mechanisms,” Hebben said.

“For every acre of wetland that is lost, as part of regulated activity or improvement activity, the applicant is required … to provide wetland replacement for that loss.”

The Manitoba government introduced a similar policy last year to ensure no net loss of wetlands.

Keystone Agricultural Producers has committed to work with the government to create the regulatory details.

“We just know the framework right now,” said KAP president Dan Maier.

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“We still don’t know the real nuts and bolts of it.”

Getting Alberta farmers on board should be possible because most landowners and government representatives have abandoned the “drain everything” mind set, said Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission.

“In the past 20 years, that attitude has changed,” Toma said.

His organization supports the policy because it offers flexibility. Producers can still drain a wetland in the middle of a quarter section if they follow the rules.

“It gives a farmer an option to move a wetland…. A farmer might be able to say, ‘can I put it in the corner (of the land)?’ ” he said.

“It does offer solutions for farmers in this age of larger equipment and farming pothole country.”

Attitudes toward sloughs and potholes may have evolved, but some landowners still view wetlands as a nuisance. Hebben said the government is partly responsible because it has done a poor job of communicating with landowners.

“We as a society have historically failed the farmers. We haven’t adequately communicated to them the value to be derived by leaving that wetland on their property,” he said.

“We tend to go to, ‘here are the societal benefits of (keeping) wetlands.’ Which is important but doesn’t necessarily resonate with the landowner.”

Hebben said policy makers and bureaucrats should alter the message. They need to emphasize wetlands’ impact on a farmer’s land, including what it means for groundwater levels, water quality and soil moisture content in the soil.

Education and persuasion may change the minds of some landowners, but enforcement will probably be necessary in other cases.

“We are very much a complaint-based organization,” Hebben said.

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“When there is an unauthorized wetland drainage … and somebody reports that, we do respond.”

Cracking down is the opposite of nudging, but enforcement does focus attention on an issue.

“There’s been a few high profile (drainage cases) … that ended up in court,” Toma said.

“That’s the worst way to raise awareness about regulations, but it has raised awareness around the regulations.”

Finding your wetland

Alberta producers who want to look at the sloughs and potholes on their land can do so at a provincial website called Geodiscover Alberta at geodiscover.alberta.ca/geoportal/catalog/main/home.page.

The Alberta government assembled an inventory of wetlands from 2011-14 using satellite images, land-sat data and data from aerial photographs.

The inventory covers 99 percent of non-federal land, said Thorsten Hebben of Alberta Environment.

“Your average Joe Public can go to Geodiscover … and zoom down to their individual quarter section, if they like, and identify where the wetlands on the quarter section lie,” he said.

“That’s not with perfect accuracy. It’s not intended for regulatory purposes…. It is simply for information at this point.”

The province developed the inventory partly so it has base line information on the number of wetlands.

Alberta Environment says 64 percent of the wetlands that existed before European settlement have disappeared in the province’s agricultural region.

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Contact robert.arnason@producer.com