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A watershed moment

Manitoba has released three new environmental initiatives to improve water management and watershed planning

The provincial government is mulling a new focus on watersheds, modelled after the grassroots Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program.

GRowing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) is one of three proposals within a new policy framework for water management the provincial government is seeking public input on.

The government has released three major documents including one detailing the intent of a new GROW program, a watershed-based approach to drainage, and a proposal to redraw the conservation district map, aligning their boundaries along watersheds.

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires and Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler jointly announced the initiatives last week. The public comment period will last until October 6.

The proposals are part of a new watershed-based policy framework to streamline and co-ordinate provincial programs and initiatives in the geographic context of watersheds, the ministers said.

“Our government believes there are tremendous ecological opportunities to improve the future of our province through effective watershed management strategies,” said Squires in a news release.

“With the development of these watershed-based planning initiatives, our province will be better positioned to address the challenges of climate change, reduce nutrient loading in our lakes and waterways, protect against drainage and flooding, and improve water quality in partnership with landowners, stakeholders and other levels of government.”

Partnership with farmers

GROW would be a partnership with farmers to encourage beneficial management practices such as small water retention projects, wetland and woodlot restoration and enhancement, and new cropping systems for soil health.

“Manitoba farmers have always been excellent stewards of the land and have a unique opportunity to provide further environmental benefits to the province,” said Eichler in the release.

“We look forward to feedback on the GROW proposal from our farmers, as well as from conservation groups and other interested Manitobans, as they help us develop a made-in-Manitoba approach that delivers sustainable and targeted results for the province.”

GROW’s origins are the ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) program originally developed in Manitoba through Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and Delta Waterfowl Foundation.

Ian Wishart, a former KAP president and now minister of education, was one of the architects behind the concept, which saw a first pilot project implemented in the RM of Blanchard.

KAP is pleased to see this made-in-Manitoba program now advancing this way, said the farm organization’s current president Dan Mazier.

“For decades we’ve been working on this,” he said. “To see it actually being proposed by a government is pretty exciting. And it’s very good news for everyone here in Manitoba, and especially agriculture.”

Much good can come from it, including getting more communiation started between farmers and non-governmental conservation groups, he said.

“NGOs want to preserve wetlands and species at risk. These projects all have value and all these entities have funds available,” he said. But communication between these entities has been “fragmented.”

“The GROW program should, with the help of the watershed authorities, help kick-start those conversations.”

‘No net loss’

The other two initiatives up for comment are Watershed-based Drainage and Water Resource Management, proposing new approaches to drainage and water works licensing, and Modernization of Manitoba’s Conservation Districts Program, which would refresh the CD’s mandate in addition to see their boundaries change.

KAP’s environment committee met with provincial Sustainable Development and Agriculture staff last week to discuss the new policy framework. It’s asked for clarification on what’s meant by a stated goal, found in the Watershed-based Drainage and Water Resource Management, of “no net loss of water retention capacity in watersheds,” Mazier said.

That document cites the urgency to protect what remains of the province’s watershed retention capacity, citing estimations that agro-Manitoba is currently losing over 2,000 hectares of wetlands each year due to drainage activity.

KAP wants to know what this would ultimately mean in terms of regulation, Mazier said.

“We’ve asked, ‘What’s the definition of this?’ They responded saying, ‘That’s up for discussion.’ I think that’s a very important question we’ll all have to answer.”

The Watershed-based Drain­age and Water Resource Manage­ment policy framework proposes a “shift in decision-making and activity toward a more holistic, watershed-based approach,” changing the focus to higher-risk, higher-impact projects, with consideration of projects on a watershed scale, noting that may include collective approvals or bundling related individual water works projects under one licence.

CDs as watershed authorities

The proposals also note watershed authorities, such as conservation districts, also need to have more input on licensing decisions.

Among the proposed changes is the goal of making the local CDs a more important part of that process, taking on a new governance role.

The government views CDs as ideally situated to co-ordinate watershed-based surface water management, yet presently only half of the existing 18 CDs are established along true or partial watershed boundaries. The rest align to municipal boundaries. The province also wants to close the gaps CDs still don’t cover, including parts of the Red River Valley, along the Winnipeg River and areas south of Lake Manitoba.

Arnold Coutts, chair of the Manitoba Conservation Districts said a program like GROW will enhance CDs’ ability to deliver watershed-based programming, but CDs will have questions about how these larger watershed authorities would be funded. More, not fewer resources will be needed to manage bigger entities and presently CDs struggle on very slim budgets, Coutts said.

Farmer input

Mazier said with both water management regulation and ecological goods and services programming top priorities for farmers, it’s important that farmers offer their ideas during the comment period.

Harvest time isn’t ideal time to be doing this, he noted, but KAP will be posting information on its website and staff will gather producer comments for the consultation, he said.

“I would encourage anyone in agriculture if they want to submit their own ideas, to bring them forward to their district rep, or to the KAP office and we’ll try to get them incorporated,” he said.

The consultation documents can be found online at: http://www.gov.mb.ca/sd/.

Manitobans can submit comments to [email protected] or by mail until Oct. 6.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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