Farmers should help design water drainage regulations

At first glance, the Saskatchewan government’s attempt to address drainage issues appears to be a no-win scenario. However, if the process is done well, it can make life better for many farmers without causing undue hardship for others.

The province is trying to provide leadership on an issue that must be addressed.

Some farmers will inevitably lose productive land, either through holding back water or by creating upland habitats to mitigate the effect of lost wetland.

At the root of this is the contention that drainage is not a right, though it has been the practice for more than a century.

Now that yields are improving, productive farmland is becoming more valuable, so farmers naturally want access to every acre.

But drained water can end up in neighbouring farmers’ lands, and eventually migrate downstream, leaving other landowners overwhelmed by the sheer volume of water that carries phosphorus and nitrogen.

Regulations enacted in 2015 govern drainage but not how to ensure wildlife habitat is maintained when wetlands are drained, so the province is trying to do that now.

It will take another 18 months of consultation with farmers to do so.

The complexity of the issue is daunting.

Some farmers are satisfied with the status quo, others who face water draining onto their land want it stopped. Some think they shouldn’t be forced to hold water, but rather, just drain it at a slower pace. Should a fee in lieu of retaining wetlands or creating upland habitats be permitted? What about wetlands that naturally dry up but must be drained in the spring for seeding?

Land renters forced into mitigation for drainage are likely to see the value of their land reduced. Will that affect lease agreements?

And provincial officials admit that the red tape involved in drainage applications can sometimes be formidable.

There is not a dilemma here — there are countless dilemmas.

Still, it appears that most farmers appreciate the need for drainage rules, but getting into the nitty gritty of mitigation requires addressing the realities on the ground in different parts of the province.

Manitoba’s solution — introduced in 2015 — offers a template. Mitigation takes place for class 3, 4 and 5 wetlands — those that are seasonal, semi-permanent and permanent — requiring two or three acres of upland habitat created for each acre of wetland lost to drainage. Saskatchewan is looking at similar rules.

The preservation of wetlands and the retention or creation of habitats that support a diversity of wildlife have been accepted by society as an imperative, and there is science to support such measures.

Like it or not, the preservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands is now part of farmers’ social licence.

The magnitude of the issue was expressed recently by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who observed that the 96 Conservation and Development Authorities that govern wetlands are not nearly enough. Instead, hundreds of C & Ds are required, Moe said.

Wetlands help to reduce erosion and recharge aquifers. They soak up water in times of high rainfalls, letting water out at a measured rate, which reduces flooding downstream.

A report by the provincial auditor released last year estimated that Saskatchewan has up to 2.4 million acres of land with unapproved drainage.

That same report pointed out that Water Security Agency staff sometimes fail to enforce the agency’s policies, that there is inadequate follow-up to monitor orders, and that there is not a clear timeframe for resolving drainage requests and complaints.

There is a need for compromise in mitigation, but there is also a need to avoid creating winners and losers.

Farmers would do well to provide their best advice on how to make mitigation work happen.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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