The Manitoba government has tabled long-discussed legislation aimed at safeguarding the province’s waterways.
“We are fundamentally changing the way we protect wetlands and are taking a fresh approach to ensure clear water for future generations right across the province,” said Tom Nevakshonoff, minister of conservation and water stewardship. “Every action has a consequence and we need to be sure we continue to do the right thing for lakes and rivers.”
If passed, Bill 5 will become the Surface Water Management Act, amending five provincial statutes including the Water Rights Act, the Water Protection Act, the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Act, the Planning Act and the Conservation Districts Act — renamed Watershed Districts Act.
The plan has garnered praise from the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.
“Protecting wetlands is one of the single most important actions we can take for the health of Lake Winnipeg,” said the organization’s executive director, Alexis Kanu.
Scott Stephens of Ducks Unlimited Canada, said the “landmark announcement is the beginning of the government of Manitoba’s insightful leadership toward a healthier environment in our province.”
But exactly what the new legislation will mean for Manitoba farmers remains to be seen.
“I hate to use the phrase the devil is the details, but it really is,” said Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers or KAP.
“Any time you are part of a working group and then the government says, we’re going to establish this in regulation, we really don’t know what it will be in the end,” he said.
KAP and other stakeholders have been involved in consultations with the province for a number of years, looking at ways to improve the health of wetlands, decrease flooding, and manage nutrients. Discussions have now spanned two KAP presidents, as well as two water stewardship ministers.
But Mazier said the tone of those long-running discussions wasn’t necessarily reflected in the province’s announcement last week.
“The tone of the release is definitely not where we were in the discussions,” he said. “We’re back to where we were when we started these discussions.”
“This isn’t a nutrient problem to save lake Winnipeg, this is about how to make Manitoba a better place with the industries we have, working together with everybody, including farmers and government. And with this announcement I don’t know if we’ve done that,” said Mazier.
However, he remains optimistic that the legislation will lessen the amount of red tape producers face when trying to maintain existing ditches and culverts on their land. Even though what is considered legal and illegal drainage is not defined in the act itself — that will depend on yet-to-be-formulated regulations. Exactly what nutrient level restrictions will be imposed also remains to be seen.
Mazier is confident that KAP will continue to play a role in the process as regulations are developed in the future, but hopes the focus remains on working collaboratively to recognize the value of wetlands, not to point fingers of blame. He added that a lot of progress has already been made and that updating legislation is a step in the right direction.
“It’s definitely going to change the conversation around our wetlands. We used to call these things sloughs, and I think everybody is finally getting to the point where they know that the wetland has value,” he said. “So the discussion now is, how do we fairly assess a wetland’s value? And that is going to be a difficult process.”