Caught Between a Slough and a Floodplain — Why Drainage is Western Canada’s Next Big Fight

Erosion in the Saddle River valley. Photo credit: Gregory J Sekulic

Nature is cruel. Or, put another way, nature is perhaps the most fair — she, if we can call it a she, cares very little as to the outcome of any change in the environment. There is a consequence to every action, but nature doesn’t judge what is good and what is bad. It just IS.

This is perhaps most evident in farming — for every decision there is a consequence. Because farming is the shepherding of biological systems, no matter our intention there is a consequence — some turn out in our favour, some don’t. That’s just nature.

This week, a radio ad campaign launched by Ducks Unlimited Canada with the tagline “Drainage hurts” raised the ire of many farmers across the Prairies. The ad takes a hardline on draining of farmland and wetlands, though doesn’t name farmers as culprits specifically, and links the practice to the increase of flooding and the movement of nutrients and pathogens into waterways and streams.

The seat-squirming fact is — Ducks isn’t wrong. While blaming farmers for the massive levels of flooding Saskatchewan and Manitoba have experienced over the last few years would be ludicrous, drainage DOES have a consequence, and CAN impact the severity of flooding when extreme rain events happen. Wetlands and high-organic matter soils hold massive amounts of water — the fewer the wetlands, the less water the landscape can hold. What’s more, yes, water moving off of land (farmed or otherwise) DOES move phosphorus, nitrogen and possibly pathogens into our ditches, streams, rivers and lakes. What’s more, fast-moving, high volumes of spring run-off causes catastrophic soil erosion (see feature image above). These issues are not debatable.

At the same time, let’s remember that Ducks Unlimited is not an environmental organization, nor are they government — Ducks is a hunting organization that recognizes that the preservation of wetlands is vital to thriving bird populations, bird populations their members want to hunt. And, hey, that’s a great spin-off, as wetlands are an integral part of water holding and filtering in our prairie ecosystems — win, win, right? But there are also those who take issue with 30-year-old (and older) DU projects in their municipalities that they allege aren’t necessarily being maintained.

Farmers are getting defensive, and rightly so. Water pollution doesn’t just come from farm land (hey there, cities, dumping raw sewage into waterways during storms!). What’s more, farmers need to remain profitable to stay in business; losing huge chunks of your production base to standing water is NOT profitable. But, and here’s perhaps the kicker, the infrastructure within municipalities (ditches, culverts, etc.) hasn’t kept up with the need to move average water levels in an organized or planned way. Put this already-strained infrastructure under load and — boom — we’ve got massive flooding.

Here’s where the drainage issue diverges into several contentious issues. The issue of moving water (off of farm land or otherwise) is far larger than lost wetlands. Municipal governments haven’t necessarily kept pace with the water-moving needs of the municipalities. Water management is complex, crosses provincial borders and is, like it or not, within the public domain. Tax payers have both a say and a responsibility in water management. Farmers are the landowners. Whose ‘say’ matters most? And what is the taxpayer’s responsibility?

The southern end of Lake Manitoba flooding farmland.

The southern end of Lake Manitoba flooding on to farmland — done on purpose to save Winnipeg. Photo: Kevin Yuill

There are those who also say that property loss due to flooding wouldn’t be such an issue if  “silly urbanites” didn’t build on floodplains. But one only needs to look at the government-water-diverting tactics just south of Lake Manitoba to see that so-called “flood plains” aren’t always that — we humans have changed the landscape and that has consequences. And let’s remember that our civilizations have nearly all started next to water, because a) life needs water and b) water was our first form of rapid transport (can you say Voyageur?).

It boils down to this — moving water is necessary, but, so far, if any planning of water movement is happening, it’s largely done by individuals and not planned at a high level (big high five to the progressive farmers I know planning their drainage carefully and with water stewardship in mind). Farmers also MUST be profitable, and, at the same time, waterways need to be protected from sediment and nutrient loading.

What’s the solution? Your ideas and thoughts are welcome, because I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the entire discussion. What I do know is this: farmers are the stewards of the land, but the water that moves off of your field goes somewhere. And that somewhere impacts the 98% of the population that ISN’T farming.

Without a progressive and aggressive means of answering the drainage question, I’m afraid it will eventually come down to strict regulation and not management.

Editor’s Note: The topic of water, water movement and water management on the Prairies is huge and complex. There are several provincial regulation changes already in the works, as well as commissions and cross-border groups working very hard on a coordinated approach to water management. Stay tuned over the coming months for more coverage and more in-depth discussions on the current status of the issue as well as changes to rules and regulations.

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