Settlement in sight for Sask. water dispute

Peter Onofreychuk has complained since 2011 that upstream agricultural drainage has flooded his farmland

MACNUTT, Sask. — A settlement in a long-running drainage dispute in east-central Saskatchewan is in the works.

After meeting with a mediator May 8, lawyers for Peter Onofreychuk and the Smith Creek Regional Watershed Association are drafting an agreement that will see water flow more evenly through Onofreychuk’s land under a conservation and development project.

Onofreychuk says this is what he has wanted since he first complained about being flooded by upstream agricultural drainage in 2011.

“Just fix the channel and leave me alone,” he said during an April tour of the Blackbird Creek that runs through much of his farmland.

An old expression says whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over, and this region of Saskatchewan certainly lives up to the latter.

The land is full of sloughs and creeks that drain toward the Assiniboine River just across the border in Manitoba, and for decades farmers have ditched and drained to make it more arable.

There have been court cases and arguments. There are hard feelings among neighbours and toward the provincial government for not dealing with the issues.

In Onofreychuk’s case, it recently came down to the expropriation of some of his land when he wouldn’t voluntarily join the proposed Blackbird Creek Conservation and Development project.

To make the situation more complex, the Smith Creek Watershed had to apply for the expropriation because the conservation and development project isn’t yet official.

The project includes 167 quarter sections and 80 landowners.

This water control structure in east-central Saskatchewan is where a large conservation and development project is proposed to manage agricultural drainage. | Karen Briere photo

It is one of many that have formed or been in the works since new agricultural water management regulations were issued in 2015 to deal with illegal drainage and the accompanying problems.

An estimated 150,000 quarters across Saskatchewan were thought to have unauthorized drainage works on them and the regulations were to either bring them into compliance or close them. The government promotes organized water management with proper controls and wetland restoration to help curb downstream flooding.

In 2018-19 a record 1,481 quarter sections were brought into compliance; 118 were closures and 1,363 were approvals.

Since the new regulations came into force more than 440,000 acres have been approved, but that’s a long way from the 24 million acres affected.

In Onofreychuk’s case, the flooding began from unauthorized drainage before the new regulations came into effect.

He complained to the Water Security Agency, identifying drainage from 23 quarters of neighbouring land flooding his own.

But by 2017 nothing had changed.

When WSA contacted him about an organized drainage project for the area he agreed to listen.

The result was a plan that Onofreychuk said would drain 148 quarters into the creek through his farm.

“I am not against this project,” he said. “I have drains myself. All I asked is that the drainage water would be controlled so that it stayed in the creek and my farmland would not be flooded.”

He wanted water held back at times to allow for a more reasonable flow through his property. Without assurances from the proponents, he wouldn’t sign on.

Meanwhile, last year he took the WSA to court for failing to act by closing the illegal ditches that affected him.

The court ruled in his favour and ordered ditches closed by Oct. 30, 2018. They were still open this spring, prompting a trip to the Saskatchewan legislature to ask why the agency wasn’t abiding by the ruling.

WSA spokesperson Patrick Boyle said the agency did respond and told the landowners of 23 quarter sections to get into compliance.

“What they chose was consolidation approvals, so that’s basically putting ditch blocks in and they’ll consolidate and hold water back on their land,” Boyle said.

One of the quarters was brought into compliance right away but the other 22 were given approvals to construct drainage works in March. Inspections were underway this spring to determine if the work had been done.

Boyle said the Blackbird Creek area was selected as a priority network under the WSA agricultural water management strategy because it has a history of conflict.

WSA president Susan Ross told the Saskatchewan legislature’s economy committee during testimony on budget estimates for the agency that the issues are complex and deep-rooted and have caused the agency to take different tacks at times.

“While our people were out thinking that these people should come together jointly, the decades of hostility among them wouldn’t allow that to happen,” she said.

NDP MLA Cathy Sproule said expropriation shouldn’t be the answer but Environment Minister Dustin Duncan said there has to be a mechanism to move projects forward.

“Most, if not all, people would agree that when you’re dealing with that amount of land and that many landowners … it’s hard to hold up a project that is approved by the majority of the landowners,” he said.

An estimated 80 percent of landowners were in favour of the Blackbird Creek project.

Tim Mitschke, chair of the Smith Creek Watershed, said the mediation process worked to everyone’s benefit. The Onofreychuks will get to keep all their land, which is important as the next generation gets involved. Upstream drainers have already installed controls and agreed to hold back water, and the conservation and development project will proceed to ensure more orderly flows.

He said the association encouraged Onofreychuk to build some small berms to keep the water on his property in check and he will get some help to do that.

For other landowners in the area, organized water movement that includes Onofreychuk is critical.

“Ninety-nine percent of farmers are ready for well-thought-out water management,” Mitschke said. “I grew up in water fights and I know they can persist.”

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