Ottawa and the provincial government are missing the boat by not investing in better drainage in farm country, according to the reeve of the Rural Municipality of Dufferin.
At a panel presentation on water management issues at Ag Days, Shawn McCutcheon argued a well-executed drainage strategy would generate tens of millions of dollars’ worth of payback annually and be better for the environment.
“I don’t know if there is awareness at the higher level in government that these types of things are going on that add to the productivity and wealth of our communities.”
He described the current provincial drainage strategy as an endless struggle with an “overflowing toilet” that squanders resources and leads to friction between farmers and municipal governments.
In his own municipality, McCutcheon estimates better water management could boost production revenue by 10 per cent on the 165,000 acres of farmland – and that would be worth $6.6 million per year for local farmers. He then argued if each dollar of ag production generates a threefold return for local businesses, that would create a $20-million benefit. And if five municipalities typically make up one conservation district, that could total $100 million from each watershed.
“That’s not once every 100 years, that’s every year,” said McCutcheon. “To me, it makes a lot more sense to tackle this problem this way rather than to have crop insurance and AgriStability cover us every time we have these wrecks.”
The cost of improving drainage would be relatively cheap in comparison – although beyond the budget of rural municipalities, he said.
McCutcheon noted his rural municipality, which surrounds Carman, is 30 miles long, 12 miles wide, and is made up of mainly heavy clay land, which slopes 12 feet per mile running east from the Pembina Valley escarpment, gradually flattening out as it goes.
Dufferin has a budget of $2.2 million to cover 500 miles of road with 1,000 miles of ditches.
In 2009, it used a $100,000 budget surplus to hire local firms to renovate existing ditches clogged with silt and shrubs, only to discover it cost about $5,000 to $6,000 per mile.
To pay for future work, McCutcheon said his council favours increasing the mill rate, instead of hiking taxes on farmland because in their view everyone, including local residents and business owners, benefits from better farm productivity.
Along with drainage, rural areas subject to excess moisture also need “catch-and-release” approaches that store and mitigate run-off events, said McCutcheon.
Dufferin set up a wetland tax credit of $40 per acre to restore 275 acres of wetlands that was formerly home to the mammoth Boyne Marsh, which was drained at the turn of the last century.
The program, although “not flashy,” is aimed at “hitting singles” instead of the “home run-style” environmental services programs such as ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services), he said.
“Producers want simplicity,” said McCutcheon. “They don’t want their land tied up for generations, but they do want to participate in practical, real-world solutions.”
Buying two per cent of Dufferin’s cultivated acres for water retention would be “great value” because it would boost productivity on the remaining 98 per cent of the land, he said.
“As a farmer, I just want to get the water off my land,” said McCutcheon. “But at the same time, we have to be smart enough as agricultural producers to know that it’s a big world out there and there are a lot of people who like ducks and cattails as much as we like crops.”
Half a century ago, Mani toba was a leader in North American water management and drainage technology, but “somewhere along the line in those 50 or 60 years, we lost our way,” he said.
While encouraged by the recent pledge by the federal and provincial governments to spend $800,000 to study drainage in Bifrost municipality, McCutcheon said he’d like to see that study expanded across the province.
He said his municipality has started mapping its local landscape using Geographical Information System (GIS) to provide real-time layered data on elevation and location. The municipality has been digitally photographed from the air twice using geo-referencing technology, once during a spring run-off situation.
“We are trying to build an information database so that we can make science-based decisions when dealing with significant water issues rather than people saying, ‘I think the water goes there,’ or ‘That’s where it’s supposed to go.’”
Tile drainage is catching on with farmers in the area, and will probably be the wave of the future, he said.
Meanwhile, local governments are trying to cope with water issues, and it doesn’t help that existing regulations are a “mishmash” between various jurisdictions, he said.
“It would be really nice if we had a bit more leadership at a higher level to help us get this in place,” he said. daniel. [email protected]
“Tome,itmakesalotmoresensetotackle thisproblemthiswayratherthantohave cropinsuranceandAgriStabilitycoverus everytimewehavethesewrecks.”
– SHAWN MCCUTCHEON