Wetlands have become something of a hot topic issues for farmers over recent years.
High farm debt loads, at times razor thin margins, and more recently the allure of high grain and oilseed prices, have all conspired to have farmers thinking about draining every slough, pothole and wetland they have.
Those are the economic reasons pressuring the loss of wetlands, but it goes farther than that too.
With every larger air seeders, and sprayers, going around small one, two, and three acre potholes is at best a time consuming inconvenience, and at worst basically impossible to maneuver.
It is just one more reason farmers think about bringing in the earth mover to drain the water forever.
But there is a cost to water drainage, most of which are incurred somewhere downstream of the farm doing the draining.
When a pothole, slough, or wetland is lost, so too is its water holding capacity.
That means the water which was held in such lowlands, allowed to seep away slowly over time, will flow and eventually collect somewhere else.
Potentially that is on a neighbour’s farmland, or ultimately it might contribute to a river flow contributing to levels which can lead to flooding, and at times that will threaten urban communities.’
Understanding what impact any single drainage effort might have is not easy, although efforts such as the Land & Infrastructure Resiliency Assessment Project (LIRA) is beginning to build such data for the Assiniboine River Watershed.
On a primarily flat Prairie landscape it is not always easy to predict where excess water will flow, and mapping is needed to help build better flow models.
Cameron Kayter, Land Resource Specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the local LIRA project said at a seminar earlier this year in Yorkton, the data around Prairie hydrology is limited. So the project focused on “what happens outside of riverine (near river) areas.”
LIRA was looking “to identify drainage paths in a landscape,” said Kayter.
That will help define details for a watershed which flows eventually down the Assiniboine River, and can threaten Winnipeg in high flow years.
But farmers must also recognize the importance of wetlands locally.
Aron Hershmiller, manager of the Assinboine Watershed Stewardship Association (AWSA) in a recent interview commented, “wetlands are sort of like the kidneys, it’s the filtration system for water quality.”
Those wetlands not only filtrate water locally, but provide on-the-land storage capacity. At a time when severe weather seems increasingly prevalent, that capacity has added value.
And there is of course the value to wildlife, in particular ducks. Ducks prefer to nest in smaller water areas, and when those lands are drained, ducks suffer.
That all said, Hershmiller noted, “wetland loss is obviously happening.”
A new program is hoping, at least in the Assiniboine Watershed to recreate some wetlands.
Farmers in the Watershed may be eligible for new funding to put drained low-lying wetland and slough areas back to their natural state.
“It’s for wetlands that have been lost, or drained in the past. We want to put them back on the landscape and compensate you (producers) for it,” said Hershmiller.
Through the program producers can receive up to $3,500 per acre for re-establishing previously-drained wetlands.
Hershmiller said the new program is a partnership including AWSA, Ducks Unlimited Canada and Environment Canada through its Lake Winnipeg Basin Stewardship Fund.
The program is hoping to reestablish 115 acres of wetlands, which in itself may not seem that significant.
But what the program does is establish a sort of precedent in regards to establishing some compensation values for wetlands saved as wetlands. The program recognizes farmers could generate some crop dollars from drained land and so pays farmers compensation for up to 10-years to put it back to water.
Wetlands, and in fact wildlife lands in general, bluffs and tree stands, are important for reasons well beyond those of the landowner, and the new program recognizes that.
That in itself may be the greatest value of the program, helping establish a system where a broader cross-section of society invests alongside farm landowners to save wetlands.
Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.