The Manitoba government has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to addressing an issue that has divided neighbours and cost the provincial economy billions due to flooding and reduced water quality. Fines for breaking the rules will rise sharply, but incentives for protecting key wetlands are being developed, and the approval process for low-impact drainage projects will be streamlined.
That’s how much wetland Manitoba loses every year to drainage. The new law specifies no net loss of “wetland benefits.”
Source: Manitoba government
Protecting key wetlands would prevent 1,000 tonnes of P and 55,000 tonnes of N from entering lakes and waterways annually. The estimated saving on removal using existing technology: $748 million per year.
Source: Ducks Unlimited
Wetland drainage destroys natural flood protection, which contributes to flooding. Floods in 2011 and 2014 each cost the Manitoba economy $1 billion.
Source: Ducks Unlimited
Manitoba’s new water management strategy will see much steeper fines for those who illegally drain wetlands but financial rewards for those who protect them.
Bill 7 (The Sustainable Watersheds Act) was introduced last fall and given royal assent on June 4, making it law.
Its aim is to protect prescribed classes of wetlands by requiring those who alter them to ensure there’s no “net loss of wetland benefits,” a provincial spokesman said.
The act provides protection to prescribed classes of wetlands and will require those proposing to take action that would result in the loss or alteration of a prescribed class of wetland to ensure that there is no net loss of those benefits, a statement from the province said.
“In those few cases where drainage of a wetland may be justified, mitigation will be required to ensure no net loss of wetland benefits,” it says.
A regulation describing the prescribed classes of wetlands and the specific actions required is currently under development.
However, the province has already defined seasonal, semi-permanent and permanent wetlands (classes III, IV and V as set out in the Stewart and Kantrud Wetland Classification System) for protection.
Estimates suggest Manitoba is losing over 2,000 hectares of wetlands every year in agricultural areas of Manitoba and recent scientific evidence shows the significant impact draining them is having on nutrient loading, underscoring the urgent need to protect remaining wetlands, the provincial statement said.
The new law also brings penalties for illegal drainage in line with those for violations under the Water Protection Act and The Environment Act.
That means sharply higher fines for illegal drainage, rising from $10,000 to $50,000 for an individual’s first offence and from $25,000 to $500,000 for a corporation.
At the same time the new legislation ushers in a long-awaited program that will pay farmers to protect remaining and existing wetlands.
The program — GRowing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) — is based on the former Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) model for incentivizing ecological goods and services provision that originated in this province in the early 1990s.
Sustainable Development and Manitoba Agriculture are currently looking at feedback offered from Manitobans from consultations on GROW towards development of that program, the spokesperson said.
- Read more: Province tables Sustainable Watersheds Act
“It is envisioned that the types of practices and payment schemes will be tailored to local needs depending on the location and the type of practices suitable to the watershed needs.”
Among those who have offered their input are the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association and the Keystone Agricultural Producers. In a media statement issued last summer announcing the final round of consultation, both groups gave the proposal a passing grade.
Arnold Coutts, chair of the MCDA, said at the time the group was especially pleased by the promise of GROW.
“This will greatly enhance our ability to further deliver watershed-based programs for improved water management in Manitoba,” he said. “Having this articulated support at the provincial level also puts into place the tools to better enhance environmental programming’s success at a greater scale which will also further advance Manitoba’s climate change efforts.”
Dan Mazier, KAP president, echoed the sentiment in the same release.
“Improved water management regulations and ecological goods and services programming are the top priorities for farmers right now,” said Mazier. “As the province’s largest group of land managers, farmers know that we have a unique opportunity to partner with government to provide ecological benefits to Manitobans.”
He also voiced support for the province’s collaborative approach, noting changes would help farmers manage water and reduce environmental and economic losses from drought and flooding.
The new legislation also brings changes to drainage licensing processes, or a “streamlined regulatory approach for the licensing of drainage projects.”
Registered projects will be audited and inspected to ensure compliance with required standards, according to the statement.
“Through the development of the dual-track review process, the Manitoba government is committed to reducing wait times and streamlining approvals for low-risk/low-impact projects,” it said.
Projects proceeding through the registration process will undergo a short review period of 14 days. If the project meets standards outlined, the proponent will receive authorization to proceed with the project.
High-risk, high-impact projects will continue to be authorized through a licensing process.
“Regulations are currently under development to set out specific classes of registrable projects and are expected to include projects such as culvert for culvert replacements, construction of new minor works or water control works that will not affect prescribed wetlands,” the statement said.
The Sustainable Watersheds Act amended four acts, including The Conservation Districts Act, The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Act, The Water Protection Act, and The Water Rights Act and is one of the government’s first steps toward implementing actions outlined under the water pillar of Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan.
The move also got the thumbs up from groups involved in wetlands preservation, including Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), that praised the province for demonstrating “sound leadership.”
Scott Stephens, DUC regional director, said royal assent for the bill was a “banner day” for Manitoba, in a media release.
“Now we will truly see sustainable development when it comes to wetland protection in Manitoba,” he said.