Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency is consulting on how best to mitigate agricultural drainage to balance the needs of farmers and the environment.
Four years after regulations under the Agricultural Water Management Strategy were implemented, mitigation has become a sticking point.
Mitigation wasn’t set in the original policy and the consultations the agency and government representatives have undertaken over the past couple of months are designed to determine how best to proceed.
“We’re not going to pretend we have it all figured out,” said Etienne Shupena-Soulodre, project manager at the WSA, during a conference on agricultural drainage and the environment organized by several environmental groups.
The 2015 regulations focus on a network approach to water management and compliance with the rules. About 10 percent of the estimated 150,000 quarter sections with unapproved drainage works are now in compliance and only a small fraction of the works have been closed.
Shupena-Soulodre said the works that have come through the regulatory process show that farmers in most cases didn’t drain all the sloughs they have and that’s an important element in managing downstream impacts.
“Holding, retaining some water has to be a part of the drainage process,” he said. “Doing that we recognize is a huge step forward for both industry and for people concerned about these impacts.”
But how much water should be held, for how long and by who is still under consideration. Effects on species at risk, erosion, water quality and other environmental aspects must be taken into account.
There are parts of the province where more water would have to be held back, and that includes most of the east and southeast in the Assiniboine, Souris and Qu’Appelle systems.
“There, if your network is draining more than 10 acres of wetlands what we’re talking about is triggering the need to hold on to 50 percent of the sloughs by area,” he said.
He used an example of a farmer who has 185 acres of drained and partly drained land, 15 acres of farmed but not drained land, and 85 acres of intact wetland. If he had to keep back half of his water, he already has 85 acres and is short 55 acres.
This landowner could choose to put some back or maybe this landowner works to include water on other land, such as pasture. Or, the farmer could make a deal with a neighbour.
Shupena-Soulodre said on average on the east side of Saskatchewan there are 16 acres of wetlands per quarter; keeping half means eight acres per quarter across a managed water project.
He said landowners have asked for more flexibility, particularly when it comes to small water bodies that usually dry up in summer but may impede seeding.
Another option could be to retain upland habitat in exchange for draining sloughs less than one acre in size. However, the farmer would have to retain more bush, tame grass and native grass than wetland.
“For every wetland acre you give up by throwing away the little ones, you have to find three acres of upland habitat,” Shupena-Soulodre said. “What this amounts to is the idea that there is incentive for two things. It gives landowners more flexibility… the other thing it does is give people a reason to put some upland habitat around sloughs.”
Option three is that WSA is willing to look at other ways farmers can achieve the same environmental outcomes, he said.
WSA is looking for about five participants willing to do pilot project water storage.
Spokesperson Patrick Boyle emphasized the policy not set in stone at this point and that’s why the demonstration projects are important.
“We want it to be flexible. We don’t want it to be rigid. What works in the southwest doesn’t work on the east side,” he said.
He said compensation for farmers who store water has been discussed at meetings but no decisions have been made.
Jeff Olson, a former WSA watershed planner and a co-founder of the Citizens Environmental Alliance, said the agency hasn’t adequately addressed environmental impacts in the past and seems to have no time, money or political will to deal with them now.
He said he would “still have to be convinced” that retaining upland habitat could mitigate for lost wetland.
Olson said large drainage networks should have to undergo environmental assessments but they don’t. He pointed to projects such as Blackbird Creek, Cupar Creek South, Cupar Creek North and Stoney Creek, all in the east-central region, that are already draining, or will drain, massive land areas.
The alliance has petitioned the federal government to require an assessment of the Blackbird Creek project and expects a decision by the end of November.
He said the agricultural water management strategy is a good idea but “the WSA is by their grace is deciding how much you have to mitigate, and what constitutes mitigation.”
Boyle said the regulations are designed to be the assessment.
Olson added he gets calls from conservation officers and others to report the harm they see from agricultural drainage. And, he suggested drainage is still occurring into the Quill Lakes despite the closure of ditches into the closed basin.