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Excess water and farm drainage: Part 1 of 3

In the first part of the a three-part series, Les Henry tackles the dreaded 
“D-word” that can get folks’ dander up. That’s right. Drainage

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on drainage. Part 2 will deal with water quality and Part 3 with wet cycles and extreme weather.

The past few years have been “back to the 1950s” for rain. Excess water has been the result. The 1950s spawned the Conservation and Development Branch (C&D) of Saskatchewan Agriculture to help farmers deal with excess water. Ag engineers designed C & D ditches to carry away excess water to a suitable location without negative effects on others. In past decades that activity stopped and private unauthorized drainage has become a problem. Our current Water Security Agency (run by the Saskatchewan government) is in the process of making changes to deal with the current situation.

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In my many years of town hall meetings drainage was a word to be avoided. Nothing gets folks’ dander up as quick as a drainage dispute. In dealing with the soil salinity question it was common during coffee break to have a person beating on each ear with exact opposite positions.

Boundary crossing considerations: the prairie provinces water board

Many Prairie rivers cross provincial boundaries. The “Prairie Provinces Water Board” (PPWB) was formed long ago to deal with apportionment issues. The agreement is that the upstream province can use half of the flow but must leave half proceed to the downstream neighbour. Many decades ago the PPWB established monitoring sites wherever rivers cross provincial borders. Those sites have also produced a large database of water flow and quality. The Saskatchewan/Alberta and Saskatchewan/Manitoba borders are good sources of information for both surface and groundwater.

The International Red River Board and International Souris River Board deal with Saskatchewan/Manitoba/U.S. problems. There is also an International Joint Commission that deals with Canada/U.S. issues.

There are countless watershed or basin boards, authorities and associations. A recent entrant is the Manitoba based Prairie Improvement Network which has spawned the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative.

There is no lack of organization.

Some history and geography

Land drainage has been an essential part of agriculture for centuries. When the Romans landed in England they found a land of mostly bush and swamp. Without drainage, agriculture could scrap big parts of England, most of the Netherlands and parts of Ontario. In parts of the Great Lakes basin of Ontario land is not considered to be farmable until tile drains are installed.

But much of England is not far from the ocean. In the Great Lakes basin, a Great Lake is not far away. The Great Lakes spill to the ocean but in spite of that, water quality problems have arisen — witness the algae blooms in Lake Erie just this past summer.

Too little or too much

The “too little” part is mostly confined to an Alberta/Saskatchewan issue and with respect to the South Saskatchewan River. The large irrigation area and oil and population growth in southern Alberta leaves it using much of the allotment. Irrigation is the big volume user. Even a big city like Calgary (1.16 million people) has annual water use equal to about only 75,000 acres of irrigation. Alberta irrigates about 1.5 million acres of land.

When there’s too much, there’s a need for drainage. The major farmland area in the Canadian Prairies that relies totally on surface drainage (and tile drainage is starting) is the Red River Valley of Manitoba. About 20 townships of land southwest of Winnipeg have long established drainage ditches that help natural drainage channels move runoff to the Red River. Without that drainage, much of the land would be of little agricultural value.

The Red River also extends south of the 49th parallel into North Dakota, Minnesota and a small area in South Dakota. The Red River Basin Board’s “Inventory Team Report — Drainage, September 2000” had this to say about the Red River Basin: “North Dakota and Minnesota account for… 47 and 41 per cent, respectively. Manitoba and South Dakota comprise only 11 per cent and one per cent of the entire area, respectively”

A few years ago while accessing other books at the University of Saskatchewan library I stumbled on a gem: March 23,1922. USDA Bulletin No. 1017. Report on drainage and prevention of overflow in the valley of the Red River of the North. by P.T. Simons and Forest V. King.

This 1922 document is a large collection of data and facts about drains already in place and elevation and other plans to create more drains and reservoirs to further improve the land. In the “Estimates of Costs” for future works they had this to say: “These estimates were prepared during 1920 and it is probable that by the time the organization is completed the costs… will be somewhat less.” (emphasis mine).

Most folks do not realize that the early 1920s were a time of serious recession, just like 2008. The mid- to late-1920s were big boom times, just like 2010 to 2014. And then came 1930 and the really big bust. Does anyone see any parallels here?

The 1922 report had this to say about the soils of the Red River valley: “All are fertile and, when drained, admirably adapted to agricultural purposes.” The report included a map of the existing surface drains and maps of elevation cross sections and recommendations for further drainage works to improve more land.

An interesting quote from the 1922 report says that the drainage of swamps and pods: “removes large quantities of excess water during the original period. …After drains have been in operation for a time the amount of discharge is diminished by whatever water is absorbed by the drained soil and by whatever amount evaporation and transpiration are increased.”

Assiniboine basin

With respect to interprovincial flows and flooding, the Assiniboine River system is a major irritant between Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Assiniboine heads in Saskatchewan and excess water from the Assiniboine (and Qu’Appelle) has caused flooding in Manitoba in recent years. Brandon has been affected and the Portage diversion of recent years has been devastating to some farms around Lake Manitoba. It is all about saving downtown Winnipeg, the same way the Winnipeg floodway does just that for the Red River as it comes up from the south.

In the opinion of this old fossil the Assiniboine River flooding problem caused by this wet cycle will not go away by using half measures. I am sure the operation of the Shellmouth dam and Lake of the Prairies is being examined in detail.

As our Saskatchewan Water Security Agency wrestles with current drainage problems they must insure that wildcat or other drainage does not add significantly to water levels of the Assiniboine in flood stage. Despite farm drainage being blamed I have seen no compilation of data that supports that. Perhaps some reader(s) will enlighten me.

But, for any real solution I suspect that another dam on the Assiniboine may be the best solution. To put it mildly, dams are not as popular as they once were. Many segments of society believe nature should be allowed to run wild and free and unencumbered by human hands. That is, unless it happens to affect a major population center. Some say every slough should be saved. How many sloughs do we see in cities or towns?

The future

As society wrestles with water problems of excess in our current wet cycle, we must remember that the watershed is the geographic unit that should be the base of studies, analysis and action. We need more compilation and synthesis of existing data and facts.

Many of the wastershed maps are simply not accurate because they ignore the non-contributing areas. Some say we need detailed LIDAR maps to make better maps. In very flat areas that may be true but there are many areas that can be separated based on existing topography and aerial photo information.

Once the areas are properly delineated, issues of quantity and quality can be examined and solutions proposed on the basis of better and more complete facts. Broad brush strokes are not the answer. Measure the problem and trace it back to the source(s).

None of us know how long this wet cycle will last. By the time we become more adept at handling the excess, Mother Nature may well turn off the tap and we will be fighting over who gets the water.

For more information on cycles, watch for Part 3 in this series on water. Part 2 will talk about drainage and water quality.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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