Blame the ditches for downstream woes, says border farmer

Ducks Unlimited expert says many farmers aren’t obtaining drainage permits 
because “it’s much easier to dig the ditch and then beg forgiveness later”

If farmers along the Assiniboine River are wondering where all that water came from this spring, Peter Onofreychuk believes he has a pretty good idea.

On a giant aerial photo unrolled on his kitchen table, the farmer from MacNutt, Sask., shows where drainage ditches have been dug on land upstream from him by a 12,000-acre farm corporation.

Local Ducks Unlimited staff provided him with the map, which marks the directional flow of the ditches on each quarter section with little green arrows.

“They drained 28 quarters of land illegally into me,” said Onofreychuk, who runs a 1,000-acre mixed grain and cattle farm with parcels on both sides of the border.

The area, once home to small cattle and grain farms amid poplars and marshes is being transformed quarter by quarter into wide-open fields of wall-to-wall canola by trackhoes, bulldozers and scrapers, he said.

The fields look impressive, but with no sloughs left, the land has lost its water retention capacity. Run-off now sloshes unchecked down the Blackbird Creek that courses through six quarters of his land before joining up with the Assiniboine near the Shellmouth Dam.

“They drain the water and they don’t care what happens downstream,” he said.

Complaints to Saskatchewan Watershed Authority officials in Yorkton about the situation have been ignored for years, said Onofreychuk.

“You can’t move a spoonful of dirt in Manitoba,” he said. “But it’s a broken system here in Saskatchewan.”

The problem is getting worse because corporations are continuing to clear, drain, and level marginal land, he charged.

“You look on Google Earth. It’s all been drained out from Wadena to Kelvington,” said Onofreychuk. “If all this illegal water wasn’t going into the Assiniboine, I don’t think there would be a big problem at Shellmouth.”

Drainage efforts are intensifying, said Chuck Deschamps, a conservation specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada in Wadena.

Deschamps recently took aerial photos of the headwaters Assiniboine River watershed near Rama and Invermay, and they show wetlands drained by an interconnected pattern of ditches that flow into tributaries of the Assiniboine. The same thing is happening in many areas, he said.

“Especially in the last couple of years, it’s progressed from simple v-ditches to guys going out there with big equipment like trackhoes cutting into the sides of hills and digging ditches that are 10 feet deep in places,” said Deschamps.

There’s no way of knowing whether the drainage is legal or illegal without making specific inquiries to the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, but Deschamps said he suspects most of it is being done without permits.

“Very few farmers apply for permits in Saskatchewan in general,” he said. “It’s much easier to dig the ditch and then beg forgiveness later.”

The Saskatchewan Watershed Authority isn’t proaactive about enforcing the rules, and only investigates if someone downstream complains, Deschamps said. Disputes are handled via an informal, farmer-to-farmer process, then, if that fails, it moves to the formal level where damages are assessed by officials.

Deschamps said downstream problems with regulating the Shellmouth Dam are likely to get worse because the rate of wetland loss upstream increases every year.

Patrick Boyle, a spokesman for the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, said that drainage in the province requires approval, and the SWA investigates unauthorized works in response to complaints.

The two-step process calls for aggrieved parties and their counterparts to work out an informal solution first, then if that fails, a formal complaint is filed. SWA then decides if the drainage works require closure, and in cases of non-compliance, the cost of closing it is forwarded to the party that built the drain.

In central Saskatchewan, there are four investigators, and about 20 in the whole province.

“In the last two years, we have seen an increase in the number of complaints, obviously due to the flooding,” said Boyle, adding that more consultants have been hired to investigate the backlog of over 150 active complaints.

Boyle couldn’t say how many landowners had been fined, the total amount levied for closing drains, or what percentage of the province’s wetlands have been lost.

“I don’t even know if we track something like that,” said Boyle.

He cited a study undertaken by the government of Manitoba and Saskatchewan on the upper Assiniboine basin following the 1995 flood that found that the effect of wetland drainage had “little” effect on major flood events.

But Lyle Boychuk, a Regina-based geographic informations systems manager from Ducks Unlimited, said that the study was based on obsolete technology and the results were “laughable.”

“Obviously, the work in the 1990s had some serious problems and there have been many advances since then,” said Boychuk, adding that a new three-year study in the works on the Smith Creek watershed north of Langenburg due to wrap up in 2013 will see more definitive conclusions.

As of press time, the owner of the farm identified by Onofreychuk had not responded to requests for comment.

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