New water legislation tabled last week lays the foundation for an ecological goods and services program for Manitoba, say provincial ministers.
The Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) program would offer farmers and other landowners incentives for farm practices that protect wetlands and promote better land management. It is based on the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) model proposed nearly 20 years ago by Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.
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It’s now part of the government’s proposed Sustainable Watersheds Act now being introduced as its first step toward implementing a Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan.
KAP president Dan Mazier said farmers are uniquely positioned to provide the flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, nutrient capture and habitat protection, the province seeks. He sees this approach as more holistic than any he’s seen in the past.
“From this farmer’s point of view, it’s a really positive change for the province,” he said.
Mazier said it is important that farmers have a continued say in the development of this program right through to regulations. It’s imperative they be involved in determining where the best value for the dollars invested in this program can be found, he said.
“How a program like GROW is going to work is in the regulations,” he said. “We definitely have to keep working with the province and the environmental community and with society discovering what these projects should look like and what’s the best bang for the buck. I cannot emphasize that enough. That was the original intent of the ALUS program and it’s key to any (ecological goods and services) program.”
GROW “would incentivize agricultural producers and other landowners to participate through best management practices in the areas of grassland and wetland restoration, water retention projects, and management of riparian areas,” according to a provincial press release.
In an interview Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said agricultural producers will be key throughout the implementation of GROW.
“I see producers staying front and centre on this,” she said.
“It is going to be facilitated through a streamlined process through our watershed districts and be better aligned to work with producers in their boundaries as well as municipal stakeholders and the province.”
Squires said the government will be looking at revenues from sources such as the carbon tax or green infrastructure to fund GROW.
“Ultimately it’s going to be a phased-in approach to ensure that this GROW program is well implemented in agro-Manitoba,” she said.
The proposed legislation makes amendments to The Conservation Districts Act, The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Act, The Water Protection Act and The Water Rights Act.
It would usher in new approaches for drainage and water works licensing, improving approval processes by revising drainage regulations to reduce red tape for minor maintenance projects.
That should free up time among field officers to spend on larger higher-impact projects related to water flows that affect not only downstream landowners but entire municipalities, Squires said.
At the same time, there will be significant fines for illegal drainage activities, ranging anywhere from $10,000 to an individual to up to $500,000 for corporations.
“We’re very clear that we do not want to see any illegal drainage work occur in the province,” Squires said.
The new proposed act would also include new requirements to ensure drainage projects do not result in the loss of certain classes of wetlands.
Squires said the government is intent on protecting seasonal, semi-permanent and permanent wetlands (Class 3, 4 and 5 wetlands).
“These wetlands are absolutely essential,” she said. “They have 150 years’ worth of carbon stored in them, nutrients stored in them. To drain them will just cause a lot of irreparable damage.”
The tabled legislation also sets nutrient targets to help measure water quality and would expand the mandate of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation to include wetland protection, mitigation and restoration.
“The government will also be looking at what we can do to incentivize the creation of wetlands,” Squires said.
This also signals a new era for Manitoba’s 18 conservation districts. These would be renamed watershed districts and some may see their borders realigned along true watershed boundaries.
Manitoba Conservation Districts Association (MCDA) chair Arnold Coutts said the changes should enable more regional planning and tying together of projects.
Coutts said changes are needed because CDs have felt the pinch of being impacted by freezes to their administration costs.
“Without a change in funding it would just be a matter of time before some CDs would not exist,” he said.