Politics - Gov’t must take on tough drainage issue

There are worse things than Saskatchewan’s division between urban and rural people — something that’s been apparent in the lead-up to week’s provincial budget.

What may be worse is seeing rural people are pitted against rural people.

And, sadly, that’s exactly what issues like illegal drainage are now doing … and have been doing for several years.

If you live in rural Saskatchewan, this issue will not be new to you … although it might not be the kind of issue that you have cared to ever bring up in pleasant conversation.

As Ray Orb, Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) put it in a recent interview: Put 100 farmers in a room and you will get 50 farmers complaining about drainage on their land and 50 other farmers wanting arguing for more drainage with less restrictions.

As such, it’s one of those issues that clearly pits neighbour against neighbour — something that’s never good for rural communities that must pull together to deal with issues.

This is where government must step in and demonstrate some leadership. To some small extent, this is what Environment Minister Scott Moe is at least attempting to do.

Last fall, Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government moved Bill 44, Amendments to the Water Security Act, that aim to bolster existing regulations.

“The goal is to control (drainage),” Moe said in a recent interview, adding that he sees little need to impose a moratorium on the practice.

During second reading debate on amendments to the Water Security Act, Moe stressed his government’s co-operative approach to the issue.

The biggest change will be a move to a “permit based” system rather than the old “complaint based” system that seems more inclined to pit neighbour against neighbour.

He also noted last month’s success of the Dry Lake agreement. It’s a joint agreement involving 73 landowners in the Gooseberry Lake Watershed in southeastern corner of the province designed to co-operatively control overflows and reduce flooding. Included in the agreement is the operation of 30 gate structures to hold back the water in critical situation.

However, many people — from hydrologists to farmers — see this response as far too tepid to deal with the magnitude of the problem.

In fairness, to Moe and his Sask. Party government, the problem of illegal draining has occurred over decades and many different governments that were also reluctant to even enforce what laws were in existence.

However, the ability and motivation to use trackhoes to drain sloughs and dig drainage has changed the game.

The Saskatchewan Water Security Agency (WSA) now estimates there are between 100,000 and 150,000 illegal drainage distance in the province.

That has created dozens upon dozens of situations like Dry Lake — many of which translate into hostilities in the communities.

Farmers complain bigger operators give them a choice between either digging an illegal ditch through their land that’s being flooding or selling their land.

The problem is, all this water eventually makes its way somewhere and that somewhere is often swollen creeks.

Often, it’s individual farmers or cattlemen (who locate operations need good water and good hay land) who bear the brunt.

But nowhere in the province is the problem bigger than at the Quill Lakes. What were once three lakes have become one that’s now exceeded its banks by 6.8 metres. There are 30,000 acres flooded by the Quills’ salty waters.

John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, puts it bluntly: “We stop what we are doing.”

Moe said his government simply can’t fix things overnight, but the minister doesn’t think the drainage problem is insurmountable.

“Its like how you eat an elephant,” Moe said. “One bite at a time.”

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.

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