Sask. drainage rules ratchet up the tension

In areas of Saskatchewan where water drainage is an issue, the new Water Security Act appears to be a disaster in the making.

Drainage is contentious, but many observers say the new act is going to raise tensions between neighbours and result in ridiculous restrictions on even minor drainage efforts.

Online surveys are the new tool of governments to justify rule changes. However, those who respond to a survey do not necessarily represent majority opinion, nor do they necessarily represent informed opinion.

There was a lot of backlash against farmland drainage in the wet years. Manitoba was clamouring for action to reduce water flow from Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, the generally held view from the public is that drainage is bad. As a result, the Water Security Act and its accompanying regulations are very restrictive. Most producers are probably unaware of how the new rules will affect them.

If any sort of drainage is in place, even if it was established decades ago, it’s now illegal unless a permit is on file. What’s more, no maintenance is allowed to let the water flow the same way that it has for years. Something as simple as addressing combine ruts to release water is technically not allowed.

If you apply for a permit on existing drainage and that permit is refused, you then have to take steps to close off the drainage.

If you apply for a permit for water that crosses the land of a half dozen neighbours, the permit is denied if just one neighbour turns thumbs down. The neighbour doesn’t need a valid reason, and no independent appeal system exists to have the situation re-evaluated.

A phone call complaint to the Water Security Agency brings officials quickly to the scene of the “crime,” driving past numerous unapproved drainage operations that they ignore because no one has yet complained.

A relatively small number of staff from widely scattered offices are supposed to police millions of acres. They don’t have the resources to approve drainage permits in a timely fashion. When there’s a complaint, they get to determine what the natural spill level should be, even if it makes no sense based on existing road culverts. Some seem to relish their position of power.

Imagine that you’re renting a quarter section of land and someone complains that it’s being illegally drained. You’re told to dike off the flow to a particular level, flooding a large portion of the quarter. The complaint came from someone upset that they didn’t get to rent that land — land that now has dramatically reduced value.

While environmental activists and many members of the general public believe all drainage is evil, that just doesn’t stand up to reasonable scrutiny. In many cases, a small amount of water can take a significant acreage out of production.

The water is gone by late May or early June, but the land it still too wet to seed. This isn’t valuable wetland. Any ducks unlucky enough to hatch near this shallow water are unlikely to survive once the water is gone.

Going around wet areas with modern large farming equipment is highly inefficient. Letting the water drain would contribute very little to downstream flow.

Drainage rules are certainly needed, but so is common sense. Instead, Saskatchewan has new rules to vilify farmers and create even greater levels of conflict.

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