Charting a new course

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New boards created to support new drainage permitting system

Drainage systems aren’t likely to catch the eye of the casual observer, but for those who rely on them for arable land, a change to the regime that governs them is a big deal.

“Water is a controversial issue. Moving water in rural Saskatchewan is very controversial,” Minister responsible for the Water Security Agency Scott Moe told the Times-Herald Friday. “If we’re to get this right as we go forward … so that we’re able to move that water off of our land and gain those agricultural benefits, but also be able to mitigate those impacts downstream, we need the best input on that.”

At the heart of it, new regulations introduced in September 2015 began shifting the system that governs drainage systems all over the province from a complaint-based model to a permitting model. Before, if a producer had a problem with a neighbour’s water management decisions – for instance, if they flooded out the whole system downhill from them after a heavy rainfall – that producer would have to go through several levels of bureaucracy with the Water Security Agency, filing complaints, and even possibly appealing the decision of the Water Security Agency. Moe said this could take 18 months to two years at times.

Now, producers and landowners will be required to work together to apply for permits that will govern whole drainage networks.

“Quite frankly, the task, if you just sit back and look at it, it seems tremendously large,” Moe said. “We’ve been doing things one way for 35 years, and you don’t change that overnight, and we understand that.”

The latest addition, Bill 44, was passed earlier this week and created two boards to replace the appeal process governed by the Water Security Agency. A technical board made up of agronomists and hydrologists and the like will be able to provide second opinions to applicants when they encounter problems, and an advisory board will help guide policy at a broader level. The latter will bring together conservation groups and associations that represent farmers and rural municipalities.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS), will sit on that board. He told the Times-Herald that the common thread between what government, farmers, and conservationists want is a good management system.

“Hard to keep everybody happy on this. It’s got to be balanced and they’re trying to get there,” he said. “You got to give them credit for trying, because it’s been a longstanding problem and it’s getting worse.”

Moe acknowledged the system wouldn’t be changed in weeks or even months, but rather years. The current plan is to tackle the problem network by drainage network. The Minister said the Dry Lake network, southeast of Regina, has proven that it can work.

Moe said the network has more than 70 producers and 55 acres of wetland in its 18,000 acres. Under the previous model, each of those producers would have had to apply for and obtain a drainage construction permit, a drainage operation permit, and an aquatic habitat protection permit. Now, they are all covered under one single permit.

“Over 70 landowners working together to achieve that control of how much water leaves that system, when that water leaves that system, and still gain the benefits they’re looking for from an agricultural perspective shows how this can actually work, “ Moe said.

He said his department is now working with 12 more networks to bring them under the new system.

While cautious about how implementation will go, Lewis said the plan is not a bad one. He questioned whether the government has enough people and resources to make the permitting process feasible, but also noted that technology has made planning drainage works a matter of days instead of months.

“Land is worth more money than it was and producers want to be able to farm more efficiently, and it’s not efficient going around water,” Lewis said. “At the same time, there’s the idea of preserving wetlands, so there needs to be organization on both sides of the drainage part of it.”

Already the system seems to be working. Since the regulations came into effect in 2015, Moe said the agency has halved the number of backlogged complaints it had.

“There’s a lot of different opinions out there, but there is a lot of common ground,” he said. “We just need to have everybody at the table to ensure we’re addressing all the concerns in our policy development into the future.”