Governments must co-operate to mitigate flood risks

Another year, another flood, another billion dollars or more of damage and lives turned upside down in some part of the Canadian Prairies.

We are in a wet period and the excess water shows that some farming strategies and government infrastructure planning considered appropriate in the past are now inappropriate.

Farmland drainage is increasingly condemned for making a bad situation worse. What is good for an individual operation can be bad for the surrounding community.

For decades, farmers sought to improve their land by draining potholes and wetlands to enlarge the percentage suitable for crop production.

But those potholes, sloughs and wetlands play a vital role in preventing or mitigating destructive floods. Drainage rapidly moves water downstream where it aggregates, creating mounting problems for farmers and municipalities.

This drainage received little government oversight, but that is changing.

Manitoba brought in new drainage policy a few weeks ago and the Saskatchewan government is expected to do the same early in 2015.

Both are part of new longer-term water management strategies.

Manitoba’s plan, now undergoing public consultation, will reduce the paperwork and approval time it takes to do routine, minor drainage, but will require more planning and oversight for large projects and will greatly increase fines for illegal drainage, in some cases by up to 400 percent.

The new system wisely embraces a “no net loss” approach to wetland preservation. Draining wetlands will generally be prohibited, but where necessary will be offset by creating new wetland.

Saskatchewan two years ago created a Water Security Agency charged with overseeing a new 25-year water security plan. Last summer it announced a consultation process designed to draft new rules for agricultural drainage by 2015.

Alberta’s floods of the past two years raise different issues because of its topography, but nevertheless have emphasized the need for upgraded infrastructure and better information on water flow and flood prevention.

It is good that each province is taking watershed management more seriously, but watersheds don’t recognize provincial borders.

Upstream drainage contributing to downstream flood damage has increased friction not just among farmers but also between provinces. Manitoba water officials and cabinet ministers are starting to publicly point the finger of blame at Saskatchewan. And yet Saskatchewan environment minister Ken Cheveldayoff said he was surprised to hear recent complaints from Manitoba.

Cross-border strategies are needed but the Prairie Province Water Board, which apportions water from rivers that flow across provincial boundaries, has little to say in addressing drainage and flood issues.

Manitoba’s Prairie Improvement Network is promoting an Assiniboine River Basin Initiative that includes the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Souris rivers and tributaries. It will bring together provincial, municipal, farm and conservation group stakeholders from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota to formally address water issues throughout the basin and promote flood mitigation strategies.

The Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments should fully support this initiative.

Western premiers recently urged free trade among provinces. That same spirit of interprovincial co-operation and co-ordination must be extended to water management.


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