Sask. farmers defend well-planned agricultural drainage

LANGENBURG, Sask. — Advocates of organized agricultural drainage say well-planned projects are key to keeping communities and people safe and land arable.

They say the practice of draining water off cultivated land is often misunderstood, and they bristle at criticism that they are not environmentally friendly.

“We are perplexed by environmental claims that we’re damaging the land,” said Tim Mitschke, a Langenburg farmer, rural municipal councilor and chair of the Smith Creek Regional Watershed Association.

The Smith Creek basin in east-central Saskatchewan has been extensively researched by academics and used as an example of how agricultural drainage has harmed wetlands.

Studies have said that more than 50 percent of wetlands in the area have been lost since 1958, which contributes to flooding.

Farmer Neil Rathgeber said they believe that’s misleading because the 1950s were extremely wet. As well, he added, small, shallow wetlands only stay on the land for days to weeks anyway.

“The Class 4 and 5 true wetlands are still intact,” he said during a recent tour of the Smith Creek area where a large conservation and development project is planned.

Mitschke said it’s true mistakes were made in the past. Decades ago, dynamite was used to blast ditches and allow water to move. More recently, farmers dug ditches without thought for their neighbours downstream.

But that has changed.

Under the new provincial agricultural water management regulations, landowners are coming together to form large networks that will manage water flows through gates, culverts and hold-back sites.

“We are trying to comply every way we can,” Mitschke said.

“Farmers are more sophisticated and cognizant of any drainage.”

Efforts are hampered by the slow pace of approvals at the Water Security Agency, a fact acknowledged by Environment Minister Dustin Duncan.

“Certainly that’s one of the concerns that we have heard,” he said.

“We’re trying to move through a lot of non-complying projects that are already existing.”

He said the large networks are priorities, but they are complex.

“It’s fair to say it is taking longer than we thought, but I think that should also be expected, though, with some of the sizes of these projects.”

Mitschke, Rathgeber and David Zerr all say that most landowners in their rural municipalities of Langenburg and Churchbridge are in favour of working together. They did so to protect the town of Langenburg from flooding several years ago.

Zerr said they are also working with neighbouring Manitoba municipalities because the water heads to the Assiniboine River.

“We can’t stop the water but we can control it, and that’s what Manitoba wants,” he said.

Added Rathgeber: “Those flood years were an eye opener for a lot of people. We need to do better.”

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