For each acre of Class 3 wetlands landowners drain, they’ll need to pay enough compensation to create or restore two or three acres elsewhere, a policy enacted by the provincial government Wednesday states.
The policy, first proposed in November, is one prong of what the government called a "new approach to drainage," along with a streamlined, online application process for minor wetland projects.
According to initial plans, landowners would apply for a licence to drain wetlands, after which a water resources officer will determine its size and classification.
Then, the owner can choose to: pay a government-approved organization to restore or enhance two acres of wetland for each lost or altered; purchase a wetland restoration or enhancement of three acres for each drained; or develop a proposal to themselves restore, enhance or protect three acres of wetland for each drained.
Meanwhile, a newly launched water licensing portal will allow landowners to apply and monitor progress online, with responses in 14 days.
Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said the previous, analog system was inherited with a backlog of hundreds of applications.
Squires called the province’s wetlands "the kidneys of our watershed," adding the government believes the new requirements, including increased focus on higher-risk and higher-impact projects, along with a new $100-million trust for wetlands-related projects, would ensure no net loss of wetland benefits.
"Our government recognizes the ecological benefits of wetlands," Squires said.
In November, when the government put its initial plans forth for public feedback, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) put forth a series of recommendations, including increased protections of Class 4 (semi-permanent) and 5 (permanent) wetlands and increased transparency of drainage applications.
"Wetlands are a critical part of Manitoba’s natural infrastructure, and provide us with a multitude of ecological benefits — from removing harmful excesses of nutrients, to providing habitats for a diverse range of wildlife. It is therefore imperative that Manitoba maintains a no net-loss of wetland benefits," IISD director of water management Dimple Roy said Wednesday.
Roy had yet to take an in-depth look at the policies released Wednesday, but was pleased to see some recommendations had been heeded.
"It is extremely encouraging to see the province protect Class 4 and 5 wetlands, precluding the issuance of drainage licences for these most valuable natural resources," Roy said.
"We are also encouraged to see a step towards greater transparency within the process of drainage applications, with the launch of the new Water Licensing Portal that will give the public access to a map of water control works and water use authorizations under the Water Rights Act."
One group not entirely pleased with the policy announcement was the Keystone Agricultural Producers.
Mitch Janssens, KAP’s vice-president, said that while the transition to online drainage applications was welcome, other policies would come at a cost to producers, as each acre of wetland drained would result in the net loss of one or two acres.
He also said while wetlands serve an ecological purpose, they can impede how producers manage their property.
In some cases, he said, a wetlands’ influence on soil and surrounding areas can have detrimental effects.
In certain scenarios, the policy doesn’t create healthier wetlands, Janssens said, rather it "forces water to stay where it is."
"The new Water Rights Act regulations brought into force by Sustainable Development represent a net negative to farmers and to the agriculture industry," Janssens said in a prepared statement.
"We are surprised that the provincial government reversed course on what was proposed during the consultation process in terms of Class 4 and 5 wetlands, and these regulations can impede a farmer’s ability to control water on their land."
Squires acknowledged farmers are struggling with water management, but said a streamlined process and less red tape on low-risk projects will be beneficial for producers overall.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Friday, October 4, 2019 at 9:51 AM CDT: Corrects that there is no compensation required for class 1 and 2 wetlands