Illegal drainage in Saskatchewan topped the concerns for Manitoba representatives at the recent second annual Assiniboine River Basin Initiative (ARBI) conference here.
The conference drew more than 100 representatives from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota to discuss mutual water-management concerns.
The conference titled ‘Co-ordinate, Collaborate, Act: Leading the way to water solution with a basin-wide strategy,’ included a number of panel and breakout group sessions focusing on water-management issues for agriculture and industry in the region.
“The importance of (ARBI) filling a gap in the Assiniboine River Basin at a grassroots level cannot be overstated,” Minister of Municipal Government Drew Caldwell told the meeting. “We all know from experience about the issues of flooding, of drought and water quality. These are issues that are vitally important to everyone living in the basin.”
Members are positive about progress and feel the collaboration will be the most effective way to handle watershed issues, said ARBI chair Dr. Allan Preston.
“As I look back over the past two years it is truly amazing how far we have come in such a short space of time,” Preston said. “The concept of the ARBI was to fill a gap that existed in the large Lake Winnipeg basin and now it is a reality. We have a united voice coming forward from this very large watershed that will be able to cover all water issues.”
New Saskatchewan legislation
For most Manitoba participants, illegal drainage in Saskatchewan was a major concern.
According to the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, approximately 100,000 to 150,000 quarter sections of Saskatchewan farmland have illegal drainage.
Doug Johnson, director of regional services with the Water Security Agency (WSA) of Saskatchewan, described Saskatchewan’s new drainage legislation, which was implemented in September.
“Formerly any projects constructed prior to 1981 didn’t require approval and that is problematic because you have an old project that still causes the same impacts,” Johnson said. “We figure that at least 95 per cent of the drainage works that are in the province are not licensed or authorized.”
Johnson said the new legislation with heavier penalties and better enforcement will be phased in over the next few years with the goal of bringing the entire province into compliance within a decade.
“Our early focus will be in the high-risk basins. The larger-impact projects in the higher-risk basins are going to have more scrutiny and we are going to put more resources towards dealing with those particular approvals and projects first,” Johnson said.
Under the new requirements all drainage activity is required to obtain approval or will be closed. Before approval is granted, the drainage must be assessed for impacts on flooding, water quality and habitat loss.
“This will be a risk-based system and we are going to be considering things on a watershed scale and a project-type scale. In terms of that, we have to consider downstream flooding, what the damage is, neighbour to neighbour but also the cumulative impacts,” said Johnson. “We feel this new approach will be fair for all concerned, for both those draining and the people impacted by the drainage.”
New projects or new approvals will also require mitigation measures in order to reduce impacts.
“We are going to expect people to put storage structures, gates, limited discharge capacity on the slough outlets, culverts and other things to slow down or store water on the landscape,” Johnson said.
Land control requirements have also been relaxed, allowing landowners to use agreements as evidence of land control, rather than use of easements.
Attendees were also provided with a prediction of future conditions on the Prairies from keynote speaker Danny Blair, associate dean of the faculty of science at the University of Winnipeg.
Blair, whose main research interests are climate variability and change in Canada’s western interior, said models suggesting climate variability is likely to increase on the Prairies in the coming decades, causing both water surpluses and shortages to become even more problematic.
“There is a pretty good consensus among the models about what is going to happen in the future,” said Blair. “All of the models are saying warmer temperatures; none of the models are saying cooler for any season, but there is variance across the models in terms of precipitation. However, we know that whether drought or flooding, water issues are going to become more dramatic and pre-emptive attention is necessary.”