Province funds drainage projects with eye on updating science

Glacier FarmMedia/Submitted Applied Research Lead Blake Weiseth works at the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm near Langham.

The provincial government is partnering with 10 independent organizations and several producers to explore new ways to manage water on their land.

Monday morning the government announces that the Water Security Agency (WSA) would be contributing $1 million towards 11 agricultural water management demonstration projects.

The projects, located at sites across the province, will allow the agricultural and environmental communities to test solutions and create best practices to help farmers and ranchers manage water and mitigate impacts, such as flooding and water quality issues, downstream.

According to a government press release, each organization involved with the project brings a “different perspective” and will help to contribute agronomic, environmental, infrastructure and economic expertise.

“Water management is important to all of rural Saskatchewan as our economy and viability of rural communities depend on it,” Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities President Ray Orb said in a press release. “We are pleased to see this investment as Water Security Agency works with local leaders on options and examples of how projects can be supported by all stakeholders.”

Lyle Stewart, legislative secretary to the Minister Responsible for the WSA, explained that the projects are designed to ensure Saskatchewan can make decisions with updates science that reflects farming practices of today.

“WSA is responsible for agricultural drainage and all matters regarding drainage,” Stewart said.

“We are trying to develop new policies that work for agriculture and protect downstream water users and downstream water quality. We need the science. A lot has been assumed and methods of farming have changed. A lot of things have changed since any new science was obtained. We’re trying to obtain new science that’s valid for the province of Saskatchewan.”

The projects are intentionally spread across the province, including one near Melfort. They’re designed to examine things like variable rate fertilizer usage and different rates of fertilizer usage affecting fertilizer in runoff, cover crops, sloughs and irrigating on farms with drainage water that have been captured.

It’s important to spread out projects, Stewart said, as different regions have different climate conditions, rainfall levels, runoff, topography and soil conditions.

One of the goals is to create a wetlands drainage policy.

“We’re trying to capture as many of those differences as we can,” Stewart said.

“We’re trying to establish what works in Saskatchewan. That’s the purpose of these demonstration projects,” said Applied Research Lead Blake Weiseth, who works at the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm near Langham, Sask.

“We want these to be science-based and based on local …. conditions. That’s why we’re doing this.”

According to Greg Ottenbreit, Minister of Highways and Infrastructure and the Minister Responsible for the WSA, in addition to looking at applying fertilizer in a way to minimize runoff, projects will examine irrigation with drainage water and the “strategic retention” of wetlands to reduce downstream flooding.

He hopes projects will show how drainage approvals can be issued while supporting profits and sustainability.

“These demonstration projects will build off that and add more strength to the increasingly diverse agriculture industry,” he said.

“Agricultural water management is extremely important to our economy and the environment, but every region of our province is different. We need to listen and learn from and work with farmers and ranchers on the landscape. These projects will allow stakeholders, WSA and local leaders to better understand how we can solve complex water management issues.”

One of the organizations partnering with the government on the project is the Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association.

Chair Miles Wendell said the organization, which has a goal of conserving and developing agricultural land through responsible surface water management, will be working to provide policy analysis in order to create a draft mitigation policy.

“Controlled drainage is extremely important in preventing overland flooding in Saskatchewan,” he said, adding that it allows people to farm economically “while maintaining water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Wendell said his organization will look to take a threshold approach to wetland loss addressing concerns for farmers and environmental impacts.

Wetland preservation and development is a key topic being explored at the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm. Weiseth said that the project will help producers to reclaim low-lying areas that sometimes flood, while incorporating nutrient management features usually associated with wetlands.

The discovery farm, he said, is building a 40-acre wetland consolidation project. The goal is to optimize the land’s productivity by reclaiming low-lying areas while preserving those ecological services.

The two-year study will look at things like variable-rate fertilizer application and what impact that has on nutrient losses and runoff waters.

The areas his project focuses on are those prone to periodic flooding. Some farmers refer to them as potholes.

“If we apply a drainage plan to that area to try to reclaim them, perhaps we can get some better productivity,” he said.

That research is relevant to producers across the province.

“These are the types of projects we like to engage in at the discovery farm,” he said, adding that the hope is other farmers can use what’s learned at the discovery farm in their operations.

“We are interested in knowledge transfer, and in the projects we do on this site, we use commercially available equipment with accepted methods so if there’s a producer … interested in a similar project they can do this on their operation as well.”

The projects are part of a bigger irrigation strategy for the province, Ottenbreit said.

The NDP raised questions about the projects’ oversight.

NDP Water Security Agancy critic MLA Cathy Sproule said “Water is an important environmental resource, and can be impacted by large scale projects. For example, unauthorized drainage issues has been rampant in Saskatchewan for many years with severe impacts on the downstream land owners. Now that the WSA is no longer under the purview of the Minister of the Environment, how will the environmental impacts of these grants be assessed? In addition, we have questions around oversight with these projects – how will the spending be accounted for, what are the metrics for success, and how will the government ensure the people of the province receive full benefit for the investment?”

Organizations taking part in these demonstrations include:

· Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association;

· Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm (Langham);

· Saskatchewan Association of Watersheds;

· Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association;

· Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation;

· Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association;

· Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association;

· Saskatchewan Research Council;

· Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute.

The province said they hope to host and extension event during construction so interested farmers and ranchers can observe the process. Langham is located about 35 km northwest of Saskatoon on the TransCanada highway. The discovery farm has 640 acres used for research and demonstration.

— with files from Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Estevan Mercury