Sask. farmers lobby for better drainage rules

Sask. Farm Stewardship Association rejects illegal drainage but says water management through drainage is necessary

One small slough on a quarter-section can cost a farmer thousands in lost production and inputs, said Myles Thorpe, president of the Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association.

That’s why many farmers want to drain those water bodies most commonly called potholes.

Yet drainage has become a dirty word due to years of unauthorized works that dumped water on downstream neighbours, eroded land and destroyed habitat. An estimated 150,000 quarters were illegally drained before new regulations came into effect a couple of years ago requiring drainage projects be brought into compliance.

Thorpe said that type of drainage is not what SaskFSA members want.

He told a seminar at Canada’s Farm Progress Show that water management through drainage is required. That could include tile drainage, which is becoming more common in the province.

He showed an example of a pothole on his land that measured 0.37 acres, or about 45 metres in diameter, and showed how it affects an area 6.3 times its size because of lost production.

Using canola yields and prices, he said the affected area would represent about $414 in lost revenue.

Multiply that by 30 such potholes on a quarter-section, which is common in some parts of the province, and that totals $12,420 per quarter.

“Divided over the 145 acres that were seeded, it’s $85 per acre,” he said.

For a farmer with 5,000 acres, and if all the fields were the same, the cost is $425,000.

Thorpe, who farms at Spy Hill, Sask., also gave an example of crop that was planted in a pothole area that subsequently filled with water. The lost canola revenue would be about $799, plus $122 worth of fertilizer that wasn’t used.

Those 30 areas in this example would equal $24,000 in lost canola revenue.

But Thorpe noted that farmers can’t just put in tile drains or some other type of works without proper permits.

The drainage strategy implemented in 2016 is still a work in progress, he said.

SaskFSA was opposed to the legislation because it contained measures the farmers felt were heavy-handed.

“It wasn’t an empowering policy. We wanted something that worked for farmers, that would enable farmers to do the right thing so they could manage these things,” he said.

SaskFSA members who have engaged in the new process are finding it a bit frustrating.

“There’s frustrations and hiccups,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process. They’re still trying to figure out what some of the processes are.”

SaskFSA formed to lobby for agricultural water management strategies that work for farmers. Currently, it represents about 1.2 million productive acres of either crop or hay land.

But the members also have about 300,000 acres of habitat land.

Thorpe said members have no desire to destroy that. They want to be able to handle those small wetlands, such as potholes, that don’t have habitat value.

“These are the ones that farmers are worried about, the ones that really cost you money,” Thorpe said. “We have lots of areas that we don’t want to manage, that are fine for wildlife habitat, that we can leave.

“We want to make land available so we can grow crops. It’s not about complete annihilation of wetlands. There’s a balance there.”

Part of that balance is determining how long someone should hold water on land before letting it go downstream. Thorpe, who is also chair of the policy advisory committee to Water Security Agency, said no one wants to flood someone else and working with neighbours and others downstream is critical.

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