Manitoba farmers will be consulted on changes to drainage licensing as part of the province’s plan to restore Lake Winnipeg and better prepare for periods of drought and flooding.
Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh revealed the province’s new surface water management strategy in Winnipeg last week, which allocates $320 million to the initiative over the next five years and promises an end to net losses of wetlands in the province.
“What we’re going to say today is very important for the future of sustainable agriculture in Manitoba,” Mackintosh said. “Today we’re signalling the biggest shift in water policy… in our history.”
The strategy outlines 50 actions designed to better manage surface water, including the collection and sharing of LiDAR data (light detection and ranging remote sensing in 3D) augmenting municipal climate change adaptation, fostering better communication, fostering collaborative research and building an interagency surface water advisory team.
In addition to no net losses of wetlands, the province is proposing a run-off retention pond network, better management of lakes that have no natural outlet such as the Shoal Lakes area and a watershed approach to water management policies.
The province also announced it will hold a summit on tile drainage this summer to assess the effects on farms and waterways.
But key to the whole strategy are the proposed regulatory changes to how drainage is accomplished.
“We hear loud and clear — particularly from farmers — a frustration that the drainage rules in this province are just not in sync with their needs… it takes the same paperwork and delay to clean out a ditch or to replace a culvert as a major undertaking that has significant downstream environmental impacts,” said Mackintosh.
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He said the proposed regulations as now proposed offer farmers a deal — a streamlining of minor works, accompanied by spot audits and a crackdown on illegal drainage.
Fines for illegal drainage could increase by as much as 400 per cent, according to the minister. However, producers wanting to do minor drainage work would only have to file a plan and meet minimum standards, reducing approval times by an estimated 50 per cent, while also lowering associated costs.
The preservation of wetlands is also instrumental to the strategy, but the minister said that doesn’t mean a moratorium on drainage.
Landowners who have no choice but to drain an area will need to offset their drainage by creating new wetlands or retention areas — possibly two or three times the size of the area they drained.
“We’re not saying you can’t drain, but if you absolutely must, and there’s no alternative to draining, you have to make up for the loss of the benefits to the environment,” said Mackintosh.
Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said the organization was part of the process that developed the proposed changes to drainage regulations.
“It’s going to make most of the work producers… do on their private lands easier to do,” he said. “What we saw with the previous licensing system, was it was very demanding, time consuming and put a big burden on the water resource officers to try and keep up with the applications.”
According to the province, roughly 75 per cent of Manitoba’s wetlands have already been drained, with the largest impact seen in areas like the Red River basin.
A newly released study from the University of Saskatchewan indicates that the loss of wetlands in the Assiniboine basin increased peak flows on that river by 32 per cent during the flood of 2011, and could have even greater effects in the future.
Mackintosh said that these new changes will “protect permanent and semi-permanent wetlands in law.” That includes the approximately 275,000 acres of seasonal wetlands in Manitoba, which usually dry out during the summer months.
Currently, the province receives about 100 applications to drain seasonal wetlands each year.
Ducks Unlimited, which also endorses the new strategy, said the changes will go a long ways to mitigating the effects of seasonal flooding.
“The wetlands protected by the proposed regulations… will provide a flood storage capacity of 11 Shellmouth reservoirs,” said Pascal Badiou, a research scientist with the organization.
But Manitoba can’t do it all alone. So while striving for leadership, Mackintosh said the new strategy also aims to develop better partnerships with neighbouring jurisdictions when it comes to water management. This includes having those jurisdictions sign on to the Lake Friendly Accord launched in 2013.
“We urge Saskatchewan, Minnesota, North Dakota and all jurisdictions in the Lake Winnipeg watershed to do their part, just as Manitoba has done its part,” added Chorney.
Anyone wishing to comment on the proposed changes to drainage regulations has until December 31, 2014.