I was recently invited to attend the annual convention of the Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association (SCDA) — I had given a talk to the group on my views of drainage last year. The SCDA Act in Saskatchewan dates back to 1949 and the current Saskatchewan Water Authority Act was passed in 2005. It exists to provide a farmer driven, organized system of drains. The C&D ditches are common in northeast Saskatchewan.
Drainage is mainly an issue in eastern Saskatchewan and much of Manitoba. The fundamental problem is that the glaciers left behind a myriad of potholes and farming around those potholes is becoming a more serious impediment as farm and machine sizes grow. In most of In Alberta, glaciers did a “once over lightly” so the system of natural drainage is well developed and not a lot of potholes exist.
Some of the stories at the 2010 convention from eastern Saskatchewan were disturbing to say the least. Very large farms with more earth moving equipment than the rural municipality and little regard for neighbours puts us in a different ball park.
In all the years I stood at the front of small-town halls expounding on soil salinity, drainage would invariably be discussed. Almost without exception the coffee break would bring a farmer beating on both ears — but with a much different tale to tell. It all depends whether you are on the “giving” or the “receiving” end. The old adage “ better to give than to receive” is nowhere more true than in drainage issues, but we must look at both sides of the issue.
DRAINAGE IS NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Without drainage, a lot of the best farmland in the world would not exist. The Red River Valley of Manitoba is a prime example. Take a look at the photo — the Gordon and Mona Brown farm home near Sperling, Man. The house is featured in a special chapter in my book Catalogue Houses; Eaton’s and Others. It was built from an original T. Eaton Co. Ltd. blueprint created especially for Rocky (Harry) and Fannie Brown in 1918. It is an Eaton house for sure, but also one of a kind. It boasted hot water central heating, hot and cold running water, electricity, flush toilets and even central vac — all in 1918.
Now, this all happened because Rocky Brown came from Illinois in 1907 and bought two sections of swamp that had not been settled. When the land was drained it became some of the best farmland in the west — and provided the resources to build the large mansion of a house. The fact that wheat was $28 per bushel in 1917 likely also helped.
Throughout England, Europe, eastern Canada, the U. S. and many parts of the world, good farmland exists only because of drainage.
WATER RUNS DOWNHILL
The contrary side of the drainage issue is what happens at the receiving end. We cannot just casually go out in the fall with V Ditchers and get rid of water we do not want in the spring (see photo above, right) taken in 2007 in the Humboldt area of Saskatchewan).
The 2010 SCDA convention program included presentations from two farmers on the receiving end of unwanted water — not a nice thing to listen to.
If drainage is being considered that would carry water across a legal boundary the impact on neighbours must be considered and easements or permits are required. In Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, headquartered at Moose Jaw, is the keeper of the keys with respect to drainage. Some think they should be doing more enforcing — they take action only on a complaint basis. It has always been my thought that local people should deal with such problems if at all possible. I do not think we want an expensive cadre of “drainage police” on our doorstep.
Groups are starting to form on a watershed basis and that is the right approach, but we need better watershed maps that reflect the actual situation. Many maps show watersheds that include all land between major height of land positions. In much of the land in the Allan Hills where I farm most runoff does not leave the quarter section; it just drains to the nearest slough. If planning is done on the basis of actual watersheds it should be possible to deal with Mother Nature as an integrated item.
On my small farm at Dundurn I use small pumps to take the water from a few small sloughs and dump it out on the nearest knoll. It seems to soak in OK and cause no problem. There are now pumps capable of moving serious water in short time (see www.generalirrigation.comfor one such example). You could get get rid of a lot of small sloughs in a day.
There are no quick fixes to the drainage issue, but it is imperative that we consider our fellow farmers and other society members when we start moving water around.
J. L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask.