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.

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

  1. I really don’t see why this is such a complex issue. Minnesota and Iowa have had water control boards for municipalities for over a hundred years. Each parcel of land has an outlet for excess water registered on the title. Drainage has been normal in Europe since the Roman Empire. 2000 years ago farmers and municipals realized that agricultural drainage was critically important

  2. Con’t
    Western Cdn ag is just realizing the importance of drainage. This has created one significant advantage in our situation. We are last, so we have the benefit of learning how the rest of the world solved this problem

  3. Sandi Knight farms just south of Lake Manitoba and lost a significant portion of her crop this year from the purposeful diverting of the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba. She sent me this:

    Lake Manitoba is indeed a man-made, government controlled flood plain and the floods of 2011 & 2014 would not have happened around the lake without the excessive use of the Portage Diversion.

    With the construction of the diversion, Lake Manitoba became a ‘managed’ lake or more accurately ‘mismanaged’… Some say the province is keeping the lake artificially high to use it as a reservoir for Manitoba Hydro, others say that makes no sense. Yet not a single stakeholder around the lake wants it this high, so why has the province kept it at levels near or above the top end of the operating range for so many years? They haven’t shared an answer with us…

    Water management is a complex issue and I won’t pretend to understand it all. To be honest, before 2011, it wasn’t even on my radar…

    Drainage, in both urban and rural areas, is a contributing factor, but no one could have been predicted the excessive rainfalls this past year. As far as farmland drainage goes, even if ALUS had been adopted by both MB & SK after the first pilot project (2006-2008?) the deluge we had would have still created havoc. (in my unprofessional opinion…up to 12″ of rain in one fell swoop??? where is it to go?)

    Given the catastrophic results, we now have the opportunity to work together to to find sound solutions, but egos need to be put aside by all parties. The blame game has to stop.

    All stakeholders need to come together, look at the recommendations and implement the ones that are most effective so we can indeed manage the water without sacrificing one community over another. And we need to do this without years and year of studies, and studies to look at the studies…

    For Lake Manitoba alone there have been 5 recommendations on the table for some time now and only one being considered. A rather ineffective one at that, for possibly, maybe, we think…2020? Governments need to step to the plate, fund the solutions and take action.

  4. Thank you for writing this, Lyndsey. I despise unregulated, ad hoc drainage programs.

    Overheard: “Oh, but I’m a farmer …steward the land and am responsible for feeding the people”

    *drains land into ravine to farm an extra few acres without having to turn*

    *ravine washes out and undercuts a road*

    …*blames municipality*…

  5. You are right, the blame game needs to stop. I really don’t understand why a U.S. based organization whose main mandate is to provide habitat for animals so that it’s members can shoot them, gets a voice in Canadian politics and environmental sustainability. DU Canada gets well over half of it’s funding (over $30 million annually)from the U.S.. In our watershed they’ve influenced local politicians who had high hopes of selling their wetlands for 4-10x market value to Ducks Unlimited who were buying up land at the time.
    We now have a big mess to deal with as our wetlands get bigger every year. We are not trying to drain them, but because this is such a political football, the natural drains that used to exist are not maintained anymore, and therefore the wetland is not encroaching on our valuable farm land. Let’s fix this by working together, not by pitting farmer against farmer.

    1. Please forgive me of my ignorance but I have lived for 56 years in this country that claims to be democratic and is supposed to strive to foster equality and respect for each other from it’s citizens. How is it that fellow farmers upstream feel that they can buy land with sloughs on it and then drain and dump these onto fellow neighbors without any consideration. Not even a thought of a phone call to ask the neighbor downstream if the creek or river channel could handle more water. I would love to take this issue to a constitution challenge over individuals rights. We just celebrated 130 years for our farm last year on productive valley land. For the supposed adding of value to their land they are causing us unprecedented erosion damage that even no-till stubble can save the soil. In a 5 mile radius I can show you 6-8 spots where the water is now continuously taking out the roads due to the burgeoning volume and speed of water on almost an annual basis. With all the extra water bodies drained into the same size of waterway it does not take near the volume of rain to flood into our well established crops as what it used to take. It makes my skin crawl to hear these comments about how unfair ducks unlimited is about drainage. I guess the old saying ” the truth hurts” still holds true.

  6. Lyndsey, your discussion of western Canada water drainage shows a good understanding that this is becoming a big issue. Half truths like “Drainage Hurts” and “Drainage Helps” don’t tell the big picture. For drainage (from all sources) to only help, effective water management is necessary. That means the ability to hold water and control flow with consideration of the needs of all parties involved. The farmer says “get the water off my fields right now”. The valley land owner, the recreation cottage owner say “These peak flows, even though they last only for a couple of weeks, are causing huge amounts of damage”. The radicals, including Ducks Unlimited, do not help any reasonable discussion. The backlash is coming as some farmers drain without regard to anyone, and other farmers now post land and deny hunting access to Ducks Unlimited members. The voice of reason has come primarily from the Keystone Ag Producers and the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Let us hope that a comprehensive western Canadian water management plan can be devised and implemented that meets the needs of those impacted by excessive water on, and through, their property.

  7. Having recently spent a week on a very well-managed, around 20 year long no-till farming operation east of Regina, I was able to observe first hand the farmer created sloughs on this farm. The reason I was there was to support them in their conclusions reached by studying their crop root systems, that continuing to do no tillage as promoted by government agencies other ag professionals was creating water management problems, not solving them. The soils I examined should have minimal difficulty taking up 12 inches of rainfall in a month if they were functioning properly. After 20 years of no tillage deeper than 4 inches these soils would produce massive runoff as of three weeks ago.

    They won’t now. Visit us at http://www.soilcursebuster.com and spend some time reading and write to us with your questions.

    Let’s examine just one simple fact concerning phosphorus “leaching “. P does not leach like other water soluble nutrients. It may move but it does not leach. The only way it moves is if the soil to which it clings moves. So if P is increasing in streams and other water bodies it is because Soil which contains P is moving off the farm . Get it? No Till does not stop Soil erosion. In fact it is making it worse as the evidence declares.

  8. Just saw a You tube ‘ GFE 2016 Ray Archuletta “It Starts With the Soil”. This is a real Way of Life changer. All people from both sides will be challenged by watching and truly listening to Ray. To see dust from soil that was turned over after having water running off it while the same amount of water on no-till, multi-species, and high carbon in the soil had no run off. Farmers would have fewer sloughs, use little to no chemicals, have higher yeilds, less cost, less erosion, and better environment for bees and all animals. I think we are reaching the tipping point when a farmer makes a good living if our thinking changes.

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