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Saskatchewan municipalities to lobby province for wetland policy

Click to play video 'Municipalities of Saskatchewan to lobby province for wetland policy' Municipalities of Saskatchewan to lobby province for wetland policy
WATCH: Snow-covered and frozen wetlands may not be top of mind during the winter, but municipal lobbyists want the Saskatchewan government to develop a wetland policy comparable to Alberta and Manitoba – Feb 15, 2021

During the cold winter months, snow-covered and frozen wetlands might not be top of mind.

But last week, the Municipalities of Saskatchewan (MOS) passed a resolution to lobby the provincial government to develop a wetland policy comparable to Alberta and Manitoba.

It passed a second resolution to “direct WSA to publish online quarterly” water quality test results from lakes and rivers, with comparisons to the WSA’s 2015 contaminant water levels.

“Whether you’re a conservationist like Ducks Unlimited Canada or a farm group, we need a policy that’s going to address all facets of industry in the province, one that’s going to allow for sustainable development,” said Michael Champion, Ducks Unlimited Canada’s head of industry and government relations for the Saskatchewan region.

Read more: Saskatchewan Party, NDP empty on policy details for wetlands: Citizens group

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For years, groups like Ducks Unlimited Canada have been pushing the provincial government to develop a wetland policy.

Currently, Saskatchewan is the only province without one.

“There is continuing, sustained, ongoing loss of wetlands. Historically, it’s about 10,000 acres a year,” Champion said.

While the province does not keep an inventory pertaining to wetland loss, according to the MOS’s resolution, estimates put the total around 70 per cent.

I equate this wetland loss, to the loss of the Amazon rainforest. In a lot of ways,” said Jeff Olson, cattle producer and managing director of Citizens Environmental Alliance.

Olson says wetlands provide homes for many species, help fight climate change and reduce the impacts of flood and drought.

He says farmland drainage is a contributing factor to wetland loss and believes a clear water drainage policy goes hand in

hand with an overall strategy.

Read more: Two vital wetlands now protected in Alberta and Saskatchewan

“One of the biggest concerns is the addition of nutrients, pesticides, chemicals into our water. The problem with this is that it’s about a cumulative effect,” Olson said. 
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“It’s not about one farmer doing the drainage… it’s when there’s literally thousands of acres, hundreds of thousands of acres that are undergoing drainage and sometimes each by individual farmer.”
In the 1990s, Olson also worked with the Ministry of Environment.
“Twenty years ago, we knew that we needed something to balance both the agricultural drainage, along with the environmental impacts,” Olson said.
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“I was on a few committees that were trying to address that. But at no time were we able to come up with a policy that would be acceptable by the senior management or politicians. The trouble was that it could impact farmers and therefore (the government) really didn’t want to have a policy.”
Since 2015, the Water Security Agency has been implementing the Agricultural Water Management Strategy, which requires the approval of drainage projects.

Read more: NCC wants thousands of hectares of native Saskatchewan prairie grasslands protected

But a 2018 provincial audit showed that upwards of 2.4 million acres of land have unapproved drainage works.
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At the time, it also noted that the WSA has limited policies around wetland retention and water quality.
Colin Whitfield is an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan.
He helps lead a project aimed at improving the resilience of communities on the prairies through a better understanding of water resources.
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“Wetlands are a really important part of our research,” Whitfield said. There’s a lot of potential for conflict over wetlands and how they’re managed and the decision making that we have around wetlands. So we want to better understand their role and the role of different types of wetlands.

Whitfield says developing a wetland policy is complex and hopes his team’s research contributes to a provincial policy.

“We should have firm policy around what level of drainage should we permit and what other things should we be doing to preserve and maintain and protect the value of the wetlands on the landscape,” Whitfield said.

“When we remove wetlands, that impacts some of these larger lakes where the impacts might be more visible and more meaningful to the general public. You use these often as places for recreational opportunities, but also as drinking water sources.”

Read more: Ranchers step forward to conserve land next to Waterton Lakes National Park

In a statement the WSA says agricultural water management is a major component in the development of a Saskatchewan wetland policy.

“The Water Security Agency is working with producers and partner agencies to develop a made-in-Saskatchewan solution. This is the first time in three and a half decades any Saskatchewan government reviewed Agricultural Water Management. We are focused on getting it right for Saskatchewan,” said Patrick Boyle, WSA spokesperson.

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“Last year, the Water Security Agency invested $1 million to work with 10 stakeholder organizations on 11 different demonstration projects. Some of these projects retain wetlands to reduce the downstream impacts of flooding on infrastructure, water quality and habitat.

“Once the work on Agricultural Water Management is finished it will inform a larger Saskatchewan Wetland Policy.”

Without a policy, Olson says future generations will pay the price.

Over the long term, this is this is going to be very bad,” Olson said.

It’s just something that we carry on with and really don’t want to come to grips with the fact that we shouldn’t be doing this.”