Much ado about drainage

Water. It seems there is either 
too much of it or not enough 
where farmers are concerned. 
The last several years in Saskatchewan have generally 
been wet, with extensive flooding in some areas, and that has led to a greater focus on unauthorized 
agricultural drainage. 

As part of its 25-year Water Security Plan, released in 2012, the province promised to better address agricultural drainage issues. After consulting with farmers and other stakeholders new regulations were announced in September 2015. Among them is a focus on compliance and a shift in thinking toward organized drainage.

In this special report, Regina reporter Karen Briere examines how the changes might affect farmers as they are phased in over the next 10 years.

The outcome might have been much different if David Zerr and the other proponents of a 22,000-acre organized drainage project in east-central Saskatchewan were attempting the initiative today.

The Langenburg East Conservation and Development Authority wanted to drain potholes and sloughs into the Assiniboine River in the early 1990s but ran into opposition from other landowners, conservation organizations and Manitoba residents downstream.

The project was pitched as a more environmentally friendly way to drain water from farmland than the numerous illegal ditches that characterized the region.

It never went ahead.

“There was a very vocal minority (against it), and it just happened to be at the time when the province was getting out of the business of doing the technical work and financially contributing towards C and Ds (conservation and development authorities),” Zerr said.

“Because of the amount of concern raised, it triggered a full environmental impact assessment, which essentially killed the project because of the cost involved.”

Fast forward to September 2015 and the announcement of new provincial agricultural drainage regulations, the first major policy changes since 1984.

The changes will be phased in over 10 years, but among them is a shift toward larger group projects as a way to curb illegal drainage by individuals.

The Water Security Agency estimates there are between 100,000 and 150,000 quarter-sections of land with unapproved drainage works on them.

“We believe that group projects and organized drainage are seen as a way to increase compliance, that we could get better projects if people could be working together,” Doug Johnson, the water agency’s executive director of special projects, said during a December workshop for producers.

Well-planned, approved drainage works have benefited Saskatchewan farmers since provincial legislation authorized them to form conservation authorities in 1949.

New conservation and development authorities have formed in the last few years, thanks to Growing Forward 2 programs that offer financial assistance for best management practices.

The province now has more than 100 of these authorities, which along with 11 water association boards, manage 3,000 kilometres of drainage ditches for flood control and back flood irrigation, according to the Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association.

This provides flood control for 4.5 million acres of farmland, but that’s just a fraction of the farmland in the province.

Drainage has been a contentious issue for decades, but the last five years of heavy spring rain, a high water table and expanding wetlands have frustrated farmers.

More have taken matters into their own hands, digging trenches to move water off their land before gaining approval from the WSA. The downstream recipients of that water have lodged complaints.

In 2012, a group of concerned landowners took their complaints, some of which dated back to the 1980s, to the Saskatchewan legislature.

They told then-environment minister Dustin Duncan that the province had to enforce its own legislation and stop illegal drainage.

Speaking for the group, Barbara Onofreychuk of MacNutt said farmers didn’t have permits and were using backhoes to dig ditches large enough to drive a combine through. She said the complaint process wasn’t working because the province wasn’t taking action quickly enough.

“It is pitting neighbour against neighbour,” she said at the time.

As concerns and complaints mounted, the province launched a six-month online consultation in September 2013.

About 500 responses led to the regulations that were released two years later.

Eighty-eight percent of the respondents supported drainage, and 87 percent said a new policy was needed.

Johnson said there was significant interest in forming new conservation and development authorities.

The legislation allows landowners in a particular area to petition for an association. Two-thirds of the landowners must sign the petition for it to go ahead.

Elected boards govern the project. They can levy taxes and control the constructed works.

Langenburg East may not have gone ahead, but Zerr has benefitted from the nearby Smith Creek Watershed project.

The 250 millimetres of rain that fell in two days in 2014 resulted in flooding, most of it on farmland in the Rural Municipality of Churchbridge where he is a councillor.

“There was losses to fields and crops, but our municipality did not even apply for disaster assistance,” Zerr said.

“There were numerous roads that were topped, but because of the ongoing work the municipality has been doing, all of the major roads were holding back miles of water.”

He said it takes four to six weeks for the water to move through, but peak discharges are lower.

“A landowner upstream had over 100 acres of crop that was flooded, but the town (of Langenburg) was saved,” he said.

“Those are good scenarios because if you have to take one for the team, so be it.”

However, he said a better way is needed to compensate the one or two landowners who bear the financial costs of holding back water.

Zerr is also vice-president of the Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association, which was formed in late 2011with a mandate to open the lines of communication about drainage.

“We’re totally in favour of organized, engineered drainage,” he said.

“It has to be done in the right way. We’re not in favour of ad hoc things.”

The Water Security Agency sees it the same way.

Johnson said there are advantages to having organized drainage with proper mitigation.

The challenge now is to get farmers on side.

“The pressure is on,” he said.

“There needs to be some large-scale behaviour changes on the landscape. We’re trying to move people from where they’ve been the past 20 years to a place where we get people into compliance.”

For more information

Visit the Water Security Agency

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