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