Conservation district managers say they welcome proposed changes to legislation governing conservation districts that would make it easier to work with Indigenous communities.
The province is proposing amendments to the Conservation Districts Act — which would be renamed the Watershed Authorities Act — that would allow these new watershed entities to strike one-on-one partnership agreements with Indigenous communities.
CD managers say that would remove the jurisdictional issues now a hold-back from working on projects together.
At The Pas, for example, Kelsey Conservation District worked closely with representatives from Opaskwayak and Mosakahiken Cree Nations and Moose Lake Community Council while developing the Carrot-Saskatchewan Integrated Watershed Management Plan.
“OCN was part of the process right from Day 1 and we had a team that put this plan together,” said Shawn Sexsmith, Kelsey District manager.
“But right now, the way things sit with CDs, our hands are tied. We can’t really work on OCN land because it’s federal land.”
The problem boils down to the complications that arise when cost sharing projects across federal and provincial jurisdictions.
The Water Protection Act requires water planning authorities engage Indigenous communities, but right now federal land is excluded from CD’s jurisdictions.
Pembina Valley CD would like to work more closely with Swan Lake First Nation but has run into hurdles too, said its manager Cliff Greenfield.
“They called us up and had 90 abandoned wells to seal,” he said. “We had a program for that. But we really couldn’t do it on their property.”
They eventually found a way around the jurisdictional issues by training their staff for the well sealing procedures, with some help from the now defunct Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency, but it wasn’t without complications, he said.
Likewise, Little Saskatchewan CD is keen to work more closely with Rolling River First Nation on water quality issues, said Colleen Cuvelier, whose office is based at Oak Lake.
Working together co-operatively to protect water is a goal for both, she said.
“We both know that water travels and we want to care for it while it passes through each other’s respective land so we can hand off a better product.”
Part of Little Saskatchewan CD also extends into Riding Mountain National Park so that’s out of reach too, she noted.
“If we’re looking to be a watershed organization, let’s encompass the whole watershed, not just the majority of it,” she said.
Greenfield said a way is likewise needed to bring more urban centres into the watershed fold. Cities such as Brandon, Morden and Steinbach have become CDs but notably a centre as large as Winnipeg is not. There’s been lots of discussion about how to encompass more urban areas.
“But it’s not very well defined as to how you bring in these cities,” said Greenfield. “It seems to be done one at a time and there’s no approved formula to get it done.”
Sexsmith said all parties will benefit as watershed planning encompasses a broader region and involves more people.
“The real winner will be the environment,” he said. “True watershed management doesn’t have holes in it.”
The Conservation Districts Act is over 40 years old and has not been updated even though approaches to water and land management have changed dramatically in that time period.