Manitoba wetlands policy frustrates farmers

Manitoba farmers are both frustrated and pleased with new water regulations in the province.

This week, Manitoba’s minister for sustainable development, Rochelle Squires, announced changes to Water Rights Act regulations, including efforts to remove “unnecessary red tape.”

“Streamlining the approval process for lower-risk, lower impact drainage and water-retention works will help strengthen our regulatory review process by enhancing our focus on larger, more complex projects,” she said.

Keystone Agricultural Producers are pleased with that change, but its leaders are concerned about other aspects of the water management plan.

With the new regulations, the province has committed to “no net loss” of wetlands.

Landowners who drain a wetland will have to compensate the province or mitigate the loss of the wetlands. They could pay for the construction of a similar wetland or restore the slough on their own property.

Like all policies, the devil is in the details. In this case, one of the key details is what constitutes a wetland.

Often, wetlands are put into five classifications, with Class 1 being an ephemeral wetland that only has water for a short period after snow melt. At the other end of the scale, a Class 5 wetland is a permanent pond with open water in the middle.

KAP was expecting that farmers could drain all classes of wetlands and then mitigate the loss with construction of an equivalent wetland on their land or make a payment to the province.

However, the government is saying that class 4 and 5 wetlands are off limits.

“Meaning, they are protected. Farmers can’t touch them,” said KAP spokesperson Joey Dearborn.

That’s disappointing because many farmers would like to consolidate all their wetlands into one large pond on a half-section or full section of land.

“We are surprised that the provincial government reversed course on what was proposed during the consultation process in terms of Class 4 and 5 wetlands,” said Mitch Janssens, KAP vice-president. “These regulations can impede a farmer’s ability to control water on their land.”

Janssens is pleased with changes to streamline the drainage application process and that the government is committing staff to resolve water disputes between neighbours.

The changes to the Water Rights Act and regulations around wetlands are more complicated than advertised.

This spring, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister invested $52 million to the Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) program for an endowment fund that will be used to pay farmers for ecosystem services like preserving wetlands.

The GROW program is similar to the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) model that exists in Prince Edward Island and a number of municipalities in Ontario and Western Canada.

Manitoba farm groups have been asking for almost a decade to be paid for ecosystem services, but KAP wants details on how the program will work.

“Further clarification is required from the province on the GROW program,” Janssens said.

“As KAP has pointed out previously, the GROW program has been announced with few details on how farmers can apply for funding, and what projects will be eligible.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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