In the aftermath

With all the flooding problems that have come upon us this year in Manitoba, there will undoubtedly be some hand wringing about what to do. Much of the flooding can be blamed on illegal on-farm drainage. Now before farmers get too upset with that statement, just relax a bit and look at what’s really happening.
Land prices are going up as they have almost always done. As land becomes more expensive, there is more incentive to drain land and get it into production. There’s a business principle at work here. More land equals more grain equals more dollars per owned acre. If a farmer drains his wet land, he gets more acres for the same  taxes and capital investment in land. Nobody can blame a farmer for draining land.
Now some get way too aggressive with draining land and with clearing trees for that matter
So what needs to be done?
Farmers need to keep more water for longer on their land, plain and simple. But who is going to compensate them for retaining tens, hundreds or even thousands of acres of water. If the public benefits from water storage and retention in ponds, lakes and marshes then the public needs to pay some compensation to farmer to do just that.
Now getting back to the illegal drainage part. Draining of land is not supposed to be done unless a farmer has  a permit. Getting a permit can take years. There aren’t enough inspectors, nor will there ever be enough, so the whole permit system is a farce. Instead farmers should be paid compensation on an application basis to store water. Approving water retention works would be a lot easier than trying to regulate drainage
Now for some local history on water retention structures. In 1971, I came to Neepawa to work as an assistant ag-rep under Allen Nebbs. Nebbs, as well as his predecessor, Wallace Lee, was a big push behind the formation of the Whitemud Watershed Conservation District, the first in Manitoba. On the municipal side, and also instrumental in that push, were Dori Bjarnarson, reeve of the RM of Westbourne, Doug Forman, reeve of the RM of Lansdowne and Lloyd Briese, reeve of the RM of Langford. Stu Briese, our local Ste. Rose area MLA is Lloyd Briese’s son
Nebbs in the late 60s or early 70s compiled a list of potential stock watering dams from Eden and Glenella to Woodside and Westbourne in response to the PFRA Stock Watering Dam program. There were over 60 sites, if my memory serves me correctly, and every one was turned down as unsuitable. Why? I’m not sure but I suspect it was a combination of  a lack of money and a sense of bureaucratic territorialism as Nebbs was a Manitoba civil servant and of course, PFRA is federal.
Had the whole of western Canada followed Nebb’s visionary move, we would have a lot less flooding.
One could ask how a province, as broke as Manitoba is by being in an annual $500 million deficit, could afford this.
There’s simple connection. Water retention is at least in part done in Manitoba to stabilize and extend the flow of water to feed our Hydro dams. The province could step back from the incredibly stupid plan to build a west side Bi-Pole III  hydro line at a cost of an extra billion and a half dollars and use that money to set up the best possible flood protection and water retention system known to mankind.
That would be too simple. It would never do to go back to the vision of an ag-rep and three municipal reeves from the 1970s. That just make too much sense.
And another bit of Manitoba history. The Whitemud River Watershed Conservation District, being the first in Manitoba, had its roots in the work of the government of Liberal premier D.L Campbell and Progressive Conservative premiers, Duff Roblin and Walter Weir (of Minnedosa). The WWCD was launched in 1972 under new NDP government of Ed Schreyer. Four premiers and three parties all had a hand in it. Although years too long in the making, WWCD was, and is, still a good idea no matter what party is involved. It was perhaps a bad omen for rural Manitoba when the WWCD inaugural celebration banquet was held in Neepawa’s Yellowhead Centre. Guest speaker was NDP cabinet minister Len Evans, Minister of Mines and Natural Resources. Evans arrived late, spoke quickly, almost impatiently, from a short, civil service prepared, text and took off for Winnipeg as fast as he could. Didn’t even stay for supper. I remember him saying he “had to leave early for another commitment”. It was just like he didn’t seem to get the significance of what was happening.
It’s always been tough for rural Manitoba to get the sustained attention of provincial politicians.

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