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Water Today Title September 25, 2021

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Lower Qu'Appelle Watershed Stewards invite agricultural sector to tackle climate change

WT Interview with Alice Davis, Watershed Coordinator, Lower Qu’Appelle Watershed Stewards. The transcription below has been edited for clarity and length

WT staff

The Qu’Appelle River flows through the Canadian prairie region and into the Assiniboine system that drains into Lake Winnipeg. The Lower Qu’Appelle Watershed Stewards advocate for water quality through the traditional territories of Treaty 4 First Nations, including Kawacatoose, Gordon, Muskowekan, Piapot, Muscowpetung, Pasqua, Standing Buffalo, Peekeekisis, Okanese, Star Blanket, Little Black Bear, Sakimay, Cowessess, Kahkewistahaw, Ochapowace, and Carry the Kettle. The Lower Qu’Appelle basin drains an area of 17, 800 km², extending from just north of Regina to the Manitoba border, including six recreational lakes (Pasqua, Echo, Mission, Katepwa, Crooked and Round Lakes) and numerous urban and rural municipalities.

WT: Welcome to WT and thanks for doing this, Alice.

Alice Davis: Thank you.

WT: This being the first of a series on people who are trying to help watersheds, I want to get a sense of why are you doing this, what you are applying for and why it is so important?

Alice Davis: Here in Saskatchewan, we have the Qu’Appelle River basin that drains our watershed area. Our vision here is for a high-quality water supply for people and for the environment, and because we have a lot of agricultural land in our area, with 6 recreational lakes and a number of major tributaries, we hope for a partnership with the government of Canada's Agriculture Climate Solutions dollars, we hope to engage enough agricultural land concentrated in our watershed, to demonstrate how to sink carbon and improve water quality downstream. This is a big project, the Agriculture Climate Solutions Fund, it is $10M for the project we are applying for.

No one else has done this work yet (in Saskatchewan).

WT: So, the idea is, the federal government is offering grants to watershed stewards to sink carbon, is that an accurate statement?

Alice Davis: It wouldn’t be just for the watersheds, and not just for carbon sink. Any group, Ducks Unlimited or farming organizations could apply for these dollars if they can cut emissions, get more efficient, but we have become aware of this grant coming up and want to jump on board and get a submission in for a project to sink more carbon in our watershed, engaging our stakeholders.

WT: When it comes to the federal government, they are in election mode, have you reached out to any of the people running? What’s the feedback so far on this project?

Alice Davis: We haven’t reached out to our MPs here yet on this project. We have reached out on wetlands; we don’t have a wetland policy here in Saskatchewan, so we have reached out to our MPs on that.

WT: What does the government say? Can you give me a sense of the back and forth with SK government so far?

Alice Davis: There is very little positive coming from our provincial government. It's almost like they don’t want to tug at the (agriculture) producers’ strings to change anything. You have to remember that Sask has a large agriculture sector. When we talk about engaging agricultural producers (farmers) they refer back to the BMPs (beneficial management practices) through the Canada Ag Partnership program; those range from restoring riparian areas, to tillage options; these programs are available to producers across Canada, however, there is no screening to see if the BMPs are actually working. There is no follow-up, no testing to see if they are doing anything constructive related to Canada’s climate change initiatives. So, with our proposal to Agriculture Climate Solutions, that is one major component, is that we will track the progress, and we are assuming that it will relate directly to climate change initiatives in our country.

WT: What are some of the beneficial management practices you are talking about?

Alice Davis: Fertilizer management practices, crop management practices, soil regenerative farming practices that are working well to reduce nutrient leaching and improve moisture retention in the soil.

WT: Why does the LQW need fixing? Why do you think it’s broken? How are you coming around to this, what needs to be fixed?

Alice Davis: As reported by the 2010 Water Security Agency report, our watershed is stressed. When I say stressed, it means there is no way to improve it unless we can get ag crop producers, livestock producers and the economics to help us fix it. Our surface water quality is stressed, our groundwater is stressed, the overall watershed health guide is noted as stressed, there is no degradation of the services it provides, it's just lost its ability to recover from any changes. There has been no other group that would take on a project of this scale to alleviate some of this stress on our watershed.

WT: Why do you need $10 million to fix it? Is this enough, and then we are good? Or is this just the beginning? If its so broken, why has no one else stepped up to demonstrate a way forward?

Alice Davis: It’s fallen on deaf ears, unfortunately. Our provincial government tells us that through the BMPs that we are currently offering our farmers/producers, we hope these BMPs will help by restoring riparian areas around creeks and rivers will help trap some of the nutrients coming off illegal drainage or (the standard) farming practices. How do we know if the farmers are doing enough to stop nutrients from getting into our water? We don’t know because there is no follow-up, these programs are offered to producers, government simply pays farmers the percentage they are covering for the project, and then that’s it. How do we know that it’s actually helping?

WT: So you need the $10M to figure out if this is helping, to prove or test what is going into the watershed?

Alice Davis: The $10M is to offset the cost involved in building a better ag carbon sink.

The diverse range of stakeholders we have could help us, we do some regenerative work here, that we would measure. We have key river systems running through our watershed, we have worked previously with Lake Winnipeg to help alleviate the stress on Lake Winnipeg. Our province is so hesitant to change anything, but this could be our strongest project yet regarding climate mitigation.

WT: What happens here, you get your $10M, there are groups that want to go do this testing, or you hire people? So many of these programs are listed, trumpeted out in press releases from government, and government grants handed out . Will the money be distributed out to groups to do testing? How does this $10 M connect LQWS to a carbon sink?

Alice Davis: We will connect Ducks Unlimited, and the First Nations along the Qu’Appelle, these would be our first contacts. The First Nations have a lot of Treaty Land Entitlement land that is often leased back to farmers, there are acres and acres of that land in our watershed. We have a great relationship with the U of Saskatchewan where the Global Institute of Water Security resides, I think we could tap into the scientists there, there would be other groups we would reach out to assist us with this, to pay for research, to pay for services that other groups may offer us, to get this project to do what it is supposed to do – to concentrate the BMPs in one area so that we can see what is working. We need to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean, and well managed.

WT: I’m aware of the testing done in Lake Ontario for excess nutrients flowing into the lake, is this a similar situation, excess nitrogen fertilizer coming into the lakes? Is that the principal problem, and what are the other issues?

Alice Davis: It's definitely part of it, and also the illegal drainage, where after a heavy rain event, after floods we had in 2011 and 2014, there was a lot of water laying on the fields. Farmers like to farm corner to corner, they don’t want to go around (water) so they drain it. These drainage ditches are not permitted by our Water Security Agency, and the water runs into our rivers and lakes, carrying fertilizer, creating a green algae mess.

WT: So, in addition to regular rain run-off that carries farm fertilizer into the water, we also have alleged illegal drainage and loss of wetlands? Why are the wetlands being lost?

Alice Davis: It's something that farmers don’t want to deal with, they drain the wetlands so they can farm the whole field. The wetlands dry up.

WT: The program you are applying for has something to do with carbon sinks, can you explain how that works in the agricultural sector?

Alice Davis: Engaging enough surface area of cultivated land, all concentrated in one watershed, so we can measure the impact of the BMPs that farmers are implementing. We are looking at the agriculture sector as the most extensive and direct path for Canada to meet our national climate goals, net-zero emissions by 2050. We can only cut so much from emissions; Canada needs to look at more effective carbon sinking. The forest is burning, so that’s not working in our favour right now. The agricultural land is capable of sinking more carbon with more farms adopting BMP’s. We are talking about paying the farmers to make these changes, like shifting the timing of fertilizer applications, which is also good for their bottom line. We can also invite other watersheds to take a look at our project, take some ideas, we will create a model for others to follow. We need to do this.

WT: I haven’t seen change come about just because someone says they have an idea, why will you're asking for change work?

Alice Davis: Education. A lot of education. Just like anything else that I or other organizations do, it's all about educating the people why we need to make the changes, and also how to change, what to do differently. On some issues, people are receptive, on others, not so much. You need the trust factor. We have a young generation of farmers that are maybe willing to make more changes, their kids are learning about climate change in school, the younger generation hears about climate change in social media, it’s on the kids' minds more so than the parents' minds, I think.

WT: So, there is an opportunity for change while the farm turns over from one generation to the next?

Alice Davis: I think so, yes. In my experience, if you educate the kids, the kids will talk about it with Mom and Dad. The more interaction between what the kids are learning at school and hearing on social media about climate change and what the parents are doing on the farm, the better. We just hope to get a positive message out there, to start with positive thoughts.

Our Indigenous communities that are farming in the watershed are for clean safe water. We have reached out to a couple of First Nations around our area, Cowessess and Kahkewistehaw have agreed to work with us. There are many large First Nations in our watershed that we will continue to reach out to. Ducks Unlimited Sask is also on our list, we are very engaged with them, we haven’t formally discussed this project yet, but we will.

WT: How come, Alice, it seems to be only you saying Canada can create a bigger, better carbon sink through the agricultural lands; why is no one else saying this in Sask? Do the bands ask why you are on their phone?

Alice Davis: We have six recreational lakes in our watershed, and 16 First Nations residing all along the basin. They feel that their good fishing and swimming experience in these lakes has been lost. We have a lot of advocacy groups, they advocate against illegal drainage, for wetland retention, on why do we have algae in October? We have so much awareness of the water issues here, any project that helps alleviate the stress on our water will have all these advocates on side. To reach the level of commitment for this fund, I really don’t think we will have a problem here. All of our stakeholders want a better environment.

WT:If everybody wants a better lake, a better fishing experience, cleaner water, this makes sense. What I am not understanding is, we have the alleged illegal drainage and fertilizer coming in, how come this has taken so long and why hasn’t it been fixed by now? Where is the bottleneck?

Alice Davis: Money. It costs money to incentivize enough farmers to adopt BMP’s in one drainage basin to be able to see the changes in the water, this goes along with increased soil carbon. It takes money to hire the scientists and do the soil testing and water testing to prove it all out. So, this project is our chance to get more people on board, when we apply for this grant, I think we will be very successful here, I’m not saying it will work in other watersheds, but I believe we can do this.

WT: How does this work once everyone is educated (on the BMP’s)?

Alice Davis: The plan is to pay the producers (for the environmental services). We haven’t decided how much will be paid for which BMP. It is likely to be based on the number of acres. We need to pay First Nations elders to tell us how they can help, what they want to see, they know how to reach net-zero emissions, they know. We can’t do this alone. The reason we haven’t done it until now, we just haven’t had government on our side, we haven’t had the money to do this. The scientists are researching and researching but no group in SK has yet put that work into practice out on the ground, in the field on a large scale.

WT: It seems you are going ahead without the help of the SK government. Are you planning to demonstrate to other watershed stewards what you are doing, to share your insights from the $10M project? What would you ask of governments here?

Alice Davis: We will ask them to please get on board with agriculture as a carbon sink, making this a key climate change initiative. Invest the time, finances, and people to do something with our ag land. I know they will say they have done this, but they haven’t included the watershed stewards in any of their plans and we have not seen the results that we could be seeing.

We as a watershed have trouble just getting our water analyzed, we have trouble getting the numbers on how much nutrient is coming into the watershed systems, we need to know how many producers are doing carbon work. We need to ask farmers what they are planning to do to help with the climate change initiatives that the federal government is trying to implement. You hear the negativity, I’m sure you know our provincial government balks at this (climate change). How do we positively help our farmers move forward in an environmentally sustainable way? How are the young farmers thinking? What about the Global Water people at the university, they are doing great work, but how do we get it working on the ground level? They have to get the research off the shelves and onto the ground, whatever they think is going to work, has to be implemented out in the field.

We are going to apply for the Agriculture Climate Solutions grant, we are going to get the producers on side, make our let’s-do-better list, getting the Universities to work with the watershed stewards and stakeholders to sink carbon in our ag land.

WT: Alice, you are a local hero here advocating for water, is there any other group we should be talking to, anything else we can do to help?

Alice Davis: It’s the politicians that seem to be our brick wall, both provincial and federal, and our producers know that. The older generation producers just want to keep doing the same old thing, but the younger ones want change. I think we need governments on board, relaying positive information about climate response, showing the way of the future, the way of protecting the environment for our kids and grandkids. We see all the tragedies happening in other parts of the world, extreme weather events, they are going to get worse here too. Nobody wants the heat (domes), the droughts, or the flooding but it's going to come if we don’t change our ways.

WT: Thanks Alice, thank you for your time.

Lower Qu'appelle Watershed

Sask Water Security Agency Map

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