Sask. politi­cians don’t want to up­set farm­ers on drainage is­sues

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - OPINION - MUR­RAY MANDRYK Mandryk is the po­lit­i­cal columnist for the Leader-post. mmandryk@postmedia.com

Cer­tainly, the re­cent pro­vin­cial au­di­tor’s re­port en­cap­su­lates the problem with drainage-re­lated flood­ing in Saskatchewan.

“Drainage reg­u­la­tion has oc­curred in the prov­ince for the last 100 years, but the en­force­ment of th­ese reg­u­la­tions was not ef­fec­tive,” says Vol. 1 of the 2018 re­port pre­sented by Judy Fer­gu­son and her staff last week.

“His­tor­i­cally, it was be­lieved that the only is­sue drainage pre­sented was whether landown­ers were flood­ing their neigh­bours.

“There was also a widespread be­lief in the agri­cul­ture com­mu­nity that drainage was a right of land own­er­ship.”

But as blunt as Fer­gu­son’s work is — her re­port states “the ma­jor­ity of drainage works in the prov­ince are un­ap­proved” — it falls short of why this re­mains a problem.

It’s pol­i­tics: No pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has rec­og­nized the scope of the problem. And no gov­ern­ment — es­pe­cially this Saskatchewan Party gov­ern­ment — is will­ing to do any­thing that might up­set farm­ers.

“We don’t un­der­stand what their over­all plan is,” said Michael Cham­pion, head of in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions in Saskatchewan for Ducks Un­lim­ited Canada. “What are they try­ing to achieve?”

It’s even more puz­zling when you con­sider that the gov­ern­ment knows full well it’s a problem. Ac­cord­ing to the au­di­tor’s re­port, the Wa­ter Se­cu­rity Agency (WSA) es­ti­mates there are 1,800 miles of or­ga­nized ditches in the prov­ince, drain­ing 4.5 mil­lion acres of farm­land in the prov­ince — of which 1.6 mil­lion to 2.4 mil­lion acres are not ap­proved.

In fair­ness, it isn’t as if the WSA or Pre­mier Scott Moe’s Sask. Party gov­ern­ment have been obliv­i­ous to th­ese prob­lems.

It has tried to re­solve se­ri­ous drainage ques­tions re­lated to the flood­ing of the saline Quill Lakes that pose a threat to rivers and lakes in the down­stream Qu’ap­pelle Val­ley.

It has at­tempted to bring un­ap­proved drainage un­der com­pli­ance, start­ing with new rules in 2015 that re­quired the WSA to ap­prove all drainage projects no mat­ter what time of year they started.

Last year, Moe (who was then en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter) and Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Lyle Ste­wart touted a co-op­er­a­tive agree­ment in south­east Saskatchewan’s Dry Lake Project with Goose­berry Lake Wa­ter­shed that sees 73 landown­ers ad­min­is­trat­ing drainage in an 18,000-acre area.

Un­for­tu­nately, Fer­gu­son’s re­port last week out­lined a litany of on­go­ing prob­lems:

A risk assess­ment process in dire need of im­prove­ment at the WSA, which doesn’t have a process to up­date its Wa­ter­shed Vul­ner­a­bil­ity Map;

Lim­ited pol­icy when it comes to wet­land re­ten­tion and wa­ter qual­ity, which aren’t given enough con­sid­er­a­tion when WSA of­fi­cials are ap­prov­ing drainage work projects;

No clear time frame for re­solv­ing re­quests and com­plaints be­fore the WSA;

A lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion to show the WSA’S ap­proval process is fol­low­ing ex­ist­ing poli­cies;

Fail­ure of WSA staff to en­force its own poli­cies;

Fail­ure to fol­low up by prop­erly mon­i­tor­ing or­ders and ac­tion taken.

In one case in the York­ton area high­lighted in Fer­gu­son’s re­port, the WSA still hadn’t set the steps for a landowner to com­ply with an or­der six months af­ter it was car­ried out.

Asked why en­force­ment prob­lems are such an is­sue in Saskatchewan, Cham­pion said: “I don’t have a good an­swer for you.”

How­ever, the Ducks Un­lim­ited of­fi­cial stressed that — for what­ever progress has been made in re­cent years with co­op­er­a­tive drainage projects — Saskatchewan isn’t mak­ing the same progress as in Man­i­toba, where that prov­ince’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment re­cently in­sti­tuted a pol­icy of no net losses of wet­lands.

Yes, we are try­ing to fix an en­vi­ron­men­tal problem gov­ern­ments of all po­lit­i­cal stripes al­lowed to hap­pen. But the im­me­di­ate problem right now is we have a Sask. Party gov­ern­ment that doesn’t see this as a problem — or at least, not a big enough one that it should in­con­ve­nience farm­ers. And an NDP Op­po­si­tion that doesn’t seem to want to take on farm­ers either.

Sadly, what needs to be done isn’t be­ing done.

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