Drainage critics predict more water heading our way

Critics say Saskatchewan’s plan to increase crop production by 10 million tonnes by 2020 will greatly increase illegal drainage — and send more water rushing towards Manitoba.

The provincial government’s ambitious plan, which also includes doubling agricultural exports by decade’s end, needs to be coupled with better water management, said Charles Deschamps, a Wadena-based resource specialist for Ducks Unlimited.

“It’s easy for us to say that we need to drain a good portion of our water to Manitoba so we can increase production, but what will the people in Manitoba think?” Deschamps said at the recent Water Management and Mitigation Conference held in Yorkton.

Drainage policy in Saskatchewan is “in need of some serious improvements,” he added, because smaller landholders and those who favour wetland preservation such as cattle ranchers are at a disadvantage when involved in disputes with bigger operators upstream.

“We’re seeing works that are just getting bigger and bigger, without any contact or approvals from downstream landowners,” said Deschamps, adding that in some cases ditches are eight miles long, 20 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Other critics used much stronger language.

“They don’t give a damn. They’ll drain water onto a smaller guy and laugh about it,” said Dallas Piller, a councillor from the RM of Elcapo, near Broadview.

The current government policy amounts to the “fox guarding the henhouse,” added another rural councillor, who requested anonymity because he feared a backlash from farmers in his municipality.

He ridiculed the current system under which drainage is overseen by local bodies. Since few people are interested in serving on such bodies, they are dominated by those who favour more drainage to expand productive acres, he said. As well, provincial officials who enforce drainage rules are often intimidated by large and influential landowners who favour drainage and lack the authority needed to curb illegal drainage, he added.

Unless there are major changes, there’s no doubt about the end result, he said.

“We are going to drain the s**t out of Saskatchewan,” he said.

But the president of the newly created provincial Water Security Agency said there has been an overreaction to record-shattering precipitation in recent years.

“Many landowners in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are attributing their flooding problems strictly to drainage,” said Wayne Dybvig. “But they are losing sight of the fact that we had a record flood in 2011.”

But he said the province is considering tougher measures, such as fines for unauthorized drainage.

And Dybvig conceded the current complaint-based system doesn’t provide a voice for those outside Saskatchewan’s jurisdiction, such as farmers in Manitoba in the Souris, Qu’Appelle, and Assiniboine watersheds.

Conference attendees heard there is a good chance water flowing into and draining from those watersheds will once again put the level of Lake Manitoba above the flood stage, and will certainly result in flooding near Lake St. Martin this year.

And there’s not much that can be done, said Eric Blais, a consultant with AECOM Canada West who was involved in the $39-million construction of the Lake St. Martin emergency drain to alleviate Lake Manitoba flooding in 2011.

Adding more drainage to funnel water into Lake Winnipeg isn’t a practical option, said Blais.

Many Lake St. Martin residents want an additional outlet to complement the Fairford water control structure on Lake Manitoba and match inflows from the Portage Diversion. That would be extremely expensive because of the work needed to protect communities on the other side of Lake St. Martin, who Blais said have been “artificially flooded” since the Fairford structure was built in the 1960s.

“Politically, it has to be done,” but it will be difficult to justify the cost due to the rarity of extreme flooding events, he said.

“Anybody got an extra $500 million to a billion dollars lying around?” he asked.

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