Man. group eager to have farmer input on water drainage

WINKLER, Man. — Adam Wiebe took time off from his spring farming preparations to attend a day-long meeting about managed drainage.

He left the meeting, which he had heard about only the day before, as a new board member for the Manitoba Agricultural Water Management Association.

That’s exactly what association president Chris Unrau was hoping to see occur at the meeting: getting farmers onto the board.

“I believe that this should be a farmer-run, farmer-driven organization that represents farmers and landowners,” said Unrau.

The association has existed for two-and-a-half years, but most of its members and executive are involved in tile drainage businesses. Farmers are the customers and demand source for agricultural tile drainage, but the provincial association hasn’t been farmer-focused.

That’s not true in Saskatchewan, where the Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association is farmer dominated. About 150 Saskatchewan farmers belong to the association, which represents at least 700,000 acres of cultivated farmland. Many are in the pothole country of east-central Saskatchewan, which is where the source water of the Assiniboine River arises.

The Manitoba association invited the Saskatchewan group to speak at its meeting, describing Saskatchewan’s stewardship association as a model of farmer-involvement for Manitoba to emulate.

The cross-border friendliness at this meeting is markedly different from the general way Saskatchewan farmers and drainage are treated at many Manitoba meetings, which SFSA administrator Char Slagar addressed frankly.

“We really don’t want to be the ones who are only looked on by Manitoban people as the greedy … up-stream that drain absolutely everything and don’t care whether Manitobans live or die,” said Slagar.

“That isn’t who we are. (But that perception) is what we are faced with on a regular basis.”

Both organizations are focused on the same goal: allowing farmers to drain farmland in an environmentally sustainable and co-ordinated manner. That includes tile drainage and regional drainage systems that hold back water after storms and allow it to be released in a controlled, non-damaging way.

Representatives from both groups said they often face resistance or hostility to any drainage because people don’t understand the difference between managed drainage and ad hoc, unco-ordinated drainage done by individuals.

Slagar said her group got the ear of the Saskatchewan government by being sensitive to its priorities and showing how managing drainage correctly could help meet those priorities.

The Manitoba government is formulating regulations that will define many aspects of drainage allowed in the province, so the water management association wants to be able to provide it with industry and farmer insight.

Wiebe said getting a better understanding of the importance of planning drainage and not just doing it or blocking it will be one of his priorities.

“I think there’s a common misperception that farmers don’t care about the environment. We do,” said Wiebe.

“It’s our livelihood. And we’re very closely related to the natural resources and water is one of the key elements we need and we need to manage it well.”

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