Wetland regulations bog down Manitoba farmers

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from government. Wednesday October 28, 2020 – 1130 CST

Last October, Manitoba’s government adopted a “no net loss” approach to wetlands.

One year later, Manitoba farmers are confused and frustrated by the new rules. Few understand how the system is supposed to work, and anecdotal stories are making the rounds about water resource officers issuing large fines or pressuring producers to unplug drainage works that were done 15 years ago.

“A number of issues have come up this summer…. There’s been a lot of concern,” Alanna Gray, a policy analyst with Keystone Agricultural Producers, said during an online KAP meeting in late October.

“We’ve expressed that to (Manitoba) Conservation and Climate. (We) asked for some changes and some clarity.”

The new rules streamline the approval process for managing small and temporary wetlands, known as Class 1 and 2.

However, landowners who drain a Class 3 wetland have to pay compensation or mitigate its loss. Class 4 and 5 wetlands cannot be drained.

A representative of Conservation and Climate said in an email that landowners have three options when it comes to no net loss of wetlands — pay, purchase or perform.

“The pay option is the quickest option and is based on a calculation of the area of wetland lost or altered” with a cost per acre of wetland of $6,000. If one acre of wetland is drained, the landowner must pay for two acres.

That’s because the legislation requires no net loss of “wetland benefits” — a new, one-acre wetland may not replace the environmental contributions of a 500-year-old slough.

“You have the option of paying $6,000 an acre that you want to drain,” said Neil Galbraith, who farms near Minnedosa.

“In reality, you’d have to pay $12,000 because of that two to one ratio.”

The other options — purchase and perform — are more complex.

“(Purchase) is a negotiated option where the proponent and an approved conservation agency can negotiate a payment for a specific project that meets the compensation ratios and requirements outlined in the regulation,” Manitoba Conservation and Climate said.

“The perform option is the proponent’s “do-it-yourself” option, where an applicant can choose to restore or enhance other wetlands as compensation for a lost or altered wetland. ”

In the DYI option, department staff work with the landowner to identify and approve a suitable project.

Part of the challenge for farmers and provincial officials is the definition of a Class 3 wetland. The process is simple if a water resource officer decides the wetland is a Class 1 or 2, but things get complicated if it’s designated as a Class 3.

“The debate is over Class 3…. It’s these ones that are wet past the seeding deadline and then they dry up in June,” Galbraith said.

If it is a Class 3, no net loss kicks into action. The producer must get a drainage licence and take steps to replace the loss, which means payment or restoration of a wetland.

Therefore, the wetlands’ designation is a critical step in the process.

A representative of a farm organization said there can be “minimal differences” between a Class 2 and Class 3 wetland. If a water resource officer decides it’s a Class 3, for whatever reason, it could cost the producer tens of thousands of dollars in payment or restoration costs.

That puts government employees in an awkward position, where they must enforce the rules and maintain constructive relationships with landowners.

Galbraith has spoken with two farmers in his region who are puzzled by provincial expectations. Representatives from Manitoba Conservation and Climate have reportedly asked the producers to reverse drainage projects that were done approximately 15 years ago.

“The drains that water stewardship is wanting plugged … were ones that were done before the current (farmers) even owned the land,” Galbraith said.

Manitoba Conservation and Climate said producers could be told to reverse or undo illegal drainage projects.

“Landowners may be asked to remove drainage projects that were completed without authorization under the Water Rights Act. Applications received prior to October 2019 can proceed under the previous requirements without compensation.”

Producers, especially those with rolling land and many potholes, want to farm their land efficiently, Galbraith said.

If a field has multiple low spots that cannot be drained and cannot be used to seed a crop, it increases cost and reduces productivity.

If producers cannot farm efficiently, they should be compensated for preserving the wetlands and the natural habitat, he added.

Manitoba has created the Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) trust, which provides funding for restoring wetlands and “balancing drainage with water retention to improve resiliency to a changing climate,” a provincial news release says.

Such funding is welcome, but it won’t compensate for lost productivity or the significant cost of satisfying the drainage regulations, Galbraith said.

“It won’t be $12,000 an acre. And there won’t be enough money for all the farmers that have wetlands,” he said.

“It costs us money to keep these (wetlands).”

How are wetlands classified?

Ducks Unlimited has published a Wetlands Classification guide (PDF format).

It can be found at www.ducks.ca/resources/landowners/manitoba-prairie-wetland-classification-guide/.

The Stewart and Kantrud system for wetlands says:

• Class I: Ephemeral wetlands typically have free surface water for only a short time after snow melt or storms in early spring.

• Class 2: Temporary wetlands are periodically covered by standing or slow-moving water. They typically have open water for only a few weeks after snow melt or several days after heavy storms. Water is retained long enough to establish wetland or aquatic processes.

• Class 3: Seasonal ponds are characterized by shallow marsh vegetation, which generally occurs in the deepest zone. They are usually dry by midsummer.

• Class 4: Semi-permanent ponds and lakes are characterized by marsh vegetation, which dominates the central zone of the wetland, as well as coarse emergent plants and submerged cattails, bulrushes and pond weeds. These wetlands frequently maintain surface water throughout the growing season.

• Class 5: Permanent ponds and lakes have open water in the central zone, which is generally devoid of vegetation. Plants in these wetlands include cattails, red swamp fire and spiral ditch grass.

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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