Sask. still searches for drainage enforcement

Government says it is working with landowners to achieve approvals in ‘ways that are not impactful on the environment’

Saskatchewan still hasn’t established how agricultural drainage can be mitigated to everyone’s satisfaction.

The Water Security Agency consulted extensively with industry and stakeholders in 2019 on how farmers’ and environmental needs could both be met, but a mitigation policy has not yet been announced.

Jeff Olson, who for years worked as a wetlands specialist with the province before establishing a consulting business in 2015, told an online drainage conference in December that more checks and balances are required as agricultural drainage continues.

“There’s standards that need to be in place to protect the environment and people,” he said, adding that those standards need to be enforced.

Olson, who is also a co-founder of the Citizens Environmental Alliance, said farmland drainage isn’t subject to environmental assessment and WSA continues to approve works without a proper mitigation policy.

He questioned whether there is political will to establish and enforce rules.

“Farming in Saskatchewan is one of the biggest economic drivers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what political stripe (governments) are. It’s one of those issues that is not very politically correct to be dealing with… to be impacting farmers’ ability to make money even though what they’re doing may be harming the environment.”

The province’s Agricultural Water Management Strategy, announced in regulations five years ago, didn’t include mitigation requirements as it moved to bring existing drainage works into compliance or close them. It focuses on a network approach to develop drainage projects that work together to move water toward an adequate outlet.

Olson said the agency has issued 3,570 drainage approvals to date and none have included wetland retention.

“Even (in) some of the networks licensed, farmers have said they would maintain certain wetlands but that hasn’t been included in the conditions,” he said.

During the consultation, the idea of upland protection was suggested as mitigation for lost wetlands. That would require a landowner to create or retain more upland habitat in exchange for draining sloughs of a certain size. Olson said that is an apples-to-oranges comparison; while both provide habitat, each is unique.

He said drainage approvals shouldn’t continue until a proper and enforceable policy is in place.

At a separate online conference also in December, WSA executive director of special projects Doug Johnson said a mitigation policy is still in the works. He told the Irrigation Saskatchewan conference that the WSA is working with landowners to achieve approvals in “ways that are not impactful on the environment.”

Johnson said the WSA is not in the business of shutting down drainage, but impacts must be considered.

It is working with numerous partners on different aspects of drainage, including with the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation on habitat impacts and species response, the Saskatchewan Research Council on flows and levels as a result of drainage, and the Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association on thresholds for a draft mitigation policy.

A new course established at Southeast College will train qualified persons, or those who help landowners apply for drainage approvals.

Olson said most people are unaware of the “threat” posed by drainage. He said the public should insist on a policy that requires bona fide mitigation and independent environmental assessments for network projects.

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