Lessons Learned Okabena Conservation and Development Project
The purpose of this research is to gain a greater understanding of how communities develop and adopt best practices for sustainable water management through community case studies. This report will document Okabena C and D Drainage and Erosion Control Project which was initially an environmental sedimentation and water runoff project but eventually grew into creating a conservation and development (C&D) area that allowed producers and governmental agencies to more effectively collaborate in solving the water issue.
Detailed research for this case study started in September 2020 and consisted of reviews of agency reports, technical papers, legislation, news stories, and presentations. Phone call and email correspondence with main project leaders and government officials concluded three interviews that provided supplementary information. Qualitative evaluation of the interviews and literature are the basis for the conclusions and discussion in this report.
⁜ Okabena was the first C&D that was developed in Saskatchewan since 1970s and it informed and facilitated development of other C&Ds within the area.
⁜ The project was initiated in 2011 by Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards (MJRWS) and was a successful collaboration between the MJRWS, producers within the C&D area, and Water Security Agency (WSA). The project was partially funded by the government and partially by levies on municipal taxes. Engineering firms were hired to design and construct the ditch drainage and the project was completed in 2013.
⁜ C&D projects embrace a drainage stewardship approach and through proper ditch construction with grassed waterways, sedimentation and nutrient loading into downstream waters is reduced. It takes more than ten years for the ditches to get vegetated, however, the results in 2016 also shown less sedimentation and producers have also expressed high satisfaction as the water has gotten drained off and they have had better crops.
⁜ Forming the C&D was a lengthy and complicated process. However, it provided legal stability and the coordination to assure maintenance on main waterways. Currently, there is a board governing and overseeing the Okabena C&D on an administration and operational budgets levied on the landowners. The board is responsible for the water infrastructure in the area and deals with any issues or concerns that may impact the quality of water in the Okabena C&D area. The board follows the Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan to maintain its integrity and may consult with WSA.
⁜ Project leaders within the producers and the governmental agencies were identified as the champions of the project to enhance collaboration between themselves. Project leaders within the producers demonstrated effective volunteerism and leadership to build a community of producers that worked together for the betterment and committed to their collective benefits.
The purpose of this research is to gain a greater understanding of how communities develop and adapt best practices for sustainable water management through community case studies. Several “success stories” of water management are being examined and documented from different regions across Saskatchewan. The case studies represent diverse aspects of water management - waste water, drinking water and flood management. Qualitative analysis of the case studies will inform how best practices are created and how they can be utilized in other regions.
This report documents Okabena C and D Drainage and Erosion Control Project, a best management practice which was initially a solution to water runoff to Moose Jaw River and environmental sedimentation that grew into creating a conservation and development (C&D) district/area for the producers to work collaboratively together and with the provincial government. The project covers 14,800 acres that drain from near Rouleau toward Moose Jaw. The project was an organized drainage project in Saskatchewan initiated in 2011 by Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards (MJRWS) and 14 landowners within the area with support from several government agencies, and private contractors. Okabena project was initiated in 2011 and the project was completed in 2013. The total cost of the project was $900,000 and the government contributed $280,000 through a pilot project program with ongoing costs per acre for maintenance being levied on rural municipal taxes (Briere, 2016a).
Agricultural runoff that is high in sediments flows from the Regina Plains into the Moose Jaw River every spring (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016). Individual farmers had cut ditches to drain water off their land which was causing uncontrolled volumes and velocities of water runoff. As all the producers within the basin were draining water from their land to the determent of the land to maximize their returns, they all had to take responsibility for the damage which resulted in erosion and sedimentation.
Erosion control was the initial reason for the project however it was swiftly concluded that developing a Conservation and Development area (C&D) would better support sustainability and provide producer control and governance over the water basin (Briere, 2016a). The Okabena C&D was the first C&D in the province built in thirty years.
The Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards (MJRWS) found that some of the worst sediment deposition was between Rouleau and Drinkwater, and an effective adaptation was needed to control the sedimentation. Subsequently in 2011, MJRWS invited area producers to a meeting where they discussed water, flooding, ditches, water direction, loss of soil and the impact on the Moose Jaw River (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016). As discussions progressed between the producers with MJRWS and the Water Security Agency (WSA), it was concluded that a C&D district should be developed for producers to have control and governance of the water flow in the basin. The Okabena C&D area was created in 2012 and the producers were able to effectively coordinate themselves and work collaboratively with Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards in Farm Stewardship Programming to receive additional support and funding as a C&D area.
Eventually, producers and MJRWS worked collaboratively to develop the C&D and developed an engineered plan to hire an engineering firm to design and a contractor to build the project. To lower the velocity of the flow of water, the project followed the natural waterway of the drainage ditch to build ditches. It takes more than 10 years for the ditches to get vegetated, therefore, there are not yet before and results available. However, the vegetated areas have shown better results of nitrogen and phosphor than the non vegetated areas.
⁜ Ditch- a small to moderate divot created to channel water. A ditch can be used for drainage, to drain water from low-lying areas, alongside roadways or fields, or to channel water from a more distant source (Saskatchewan watershed authority, 2006).
⁜ Drainage – movement of water off of land, either naturally or manmade, unauthorized or approved (Saskatchewan watershed authority, 2006).
⁜ Watershed – an area of elevated land that drains into the same region and is the line between drainage basins. It is subject to surface and subsurface drainage under gravity to the ocean or interior lakes (Saskatchewan watershed authority, 2006).
⁜ C&D is a Conservation and Development Area which is governed by aboard. C&D projects are normally drainage or sub-drainage basins. The Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan, legislated in 1949, allows landowners in a particular area to petition for a C&D Association. Elected boards govern the design, construction, and long-term maintenance of works project and can levy taxes (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016; Briere, 2016b).
⁜ Culvert- is a small channel that carries a stream of water or open drain allowing it to flow under a road or railroad
⁜ Vegetated/Grassed Ditch- A type of drainage ditch that is heavily planted with grasses to provide filtration (Needelman et al, 2007).
The Okabena project was selected as a “success story” for water management by the Implementing Community Citizen Engaged Best Management Practices through Adaptive Management Project research team based on a recommendation by Water Security Agency. Detailed research for this case study started in September 2020 and consisted of reviews of agency reports, technical papers, legislation, news stories, and presentations. Phone call and email correspondence with main project leaders and government officials concluded a series of interviews that provided supplementary information. Qualitative evaluation of the interviews and literature are the basis for the conclusions and discussion in this report.
Okabena is a Conservation and Development area that was defined and established in 2012 by the Minister responsible for Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, as “The Okabena Conservation and Development Area Number One Hundred and Seventy-six”. This area covers 14,800 acres of land that drain from near Rouleau toward Moose Jaw with eight landowners and about 50 producers engaged in farming businesses (Briere, 2016a).
Okabena project area that drain from near Rouleau toward Moose Jaw (Map 1).
Okabena C and D covers covers 14,800 acres (Map2).
The Okabena area has had longstanding issues with drainage and sedimentation such as repeated flooding and water runoff specially in spring and nutrient loading.
The Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards (MJRWS)1 has the mandate of environmental stewardship and farm stewardship and approached producers about considering grassing (vegetating) the drainage that was flowing into the Moose Jaw River and working collaboratively to develop a drainage project that would account for environmental impacts mentioned above.
In 2011, a group of producers that had issues with the water accumulating their land and not flowing off established a cooperative to create a ditch drainage as a water adaptation to control erosion and prevent flooding. They consulted with the MJRWS and the project started as an environmental sedimentation reduction and nutrient loading reduction project but the idea emerged through the initiative of the MJRWS to reorganize as a C&D as a member of the board was involved in other C&Ds and familiar with the process. Therefore, the project was initiated in 2011 by the MJRWS to reduce the amount of sedimentation and improve the quality of water entering Moose Jaw River. As discussions progressed between the producers with MJRWS it was concluded that a C&D district should be developed for producers to have control and governance of the water flow in the basin. The Okabena C&D area was created in 2012 and the producers were able to effectively coordinate themselves and work collaboratively with Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards in Farm Stewardship Programming to receive additional support and funding as a C&D area.
Forming the C and D was a tedious process. To establish the C&D, producers communicated with their neighbors and a series of more than six meetings was held between 2011 and 2012 to bring everyone together and engage them. Through a democratic/consultative process that all agreed to the project to move ahead, they created a business plan between the landowners for proceeding with the development of the C&D. The producers in the drainage basin also decided that they needed to form a C&D with the ability to control land, tax for maintenance, and approve future works (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016). After the initial agreement, when they had the engineered plan with associated costs of building the drainage, everyone was consulted again and voted for the plan. The C&D board got consent of the plan from landowners and the Saskatchewan Environment such as fisheries. They had to get approval from everybody that had a quarter section within that area for the project to go ahead and 48 landowners within the water basin signed permits to agree to the plan to form the C&D. Landowners permissions allowed the group to receive approval from WSA and the recognition of C&D. They agreed to improve the main waterway through engineered designs, resloping, revegetating, and installation of control structures (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016).
The project was an engineered drainage channel to minimize the sedimentation and erosion discharged into the Moose Jaw River and to reduce the impact of flooding on farmland. After the C&D was established and the plan got approved, an engineering firm was hired through WSA to set out the drainage area and drainage design. Afterwards, a contractor was hired to build the drainage.
The project was designed by the engineering firm AECOM. AECOM is an engineering and infrastructure firm that develops and implements solutions to complex environmental challenges and projects. They collected data and conducted field surveys. They identified in the upland, the runs and ditches were shallow and farmed through in the course of normal agricultural operations but on the lower reach of the creek (south of the railroad), the slope is steeper and the channel becomes deeper and more defined. The solution to the problem was to control the erosion by shaping and sloping the channels and seeding them to grass and installing grade control structures. Ditches could not be made straight from the producers’ lands to the river because that increases velocity’s flow. A typical design of the drainage design is given below.
Therefore, the project followed the course of the natural waterway of the drainage back to the actual waterway of the Moose Jaw River and through vegetated ditches, erosion and sedimentation is reduced. In addition to erosion, significant rainfall events contributed to runoff that could also cause flooding. In that regard, the capacity of culverts through the highway and the railroad were evaluated and adapted to meet the normal flood frequency criteria.
They came with a business plan and in producers’ area, it was just excavating existing water drainage streams that were within the topography of the land. After they were cleaned out, the culverts across the highway and the railroad tracks and other roads were more strategically placed to contain the flow to navigate it through certain areas to slow down the flow as it makes it way down to the river.
Another important factor of the engineering was they had to hold back the upstream water to stage the stream and control the flow and for that reason, a lot of the natural waterway of this drainage program is gated culvert (see concept clarification). As the water streams open up in the spring, the gated culverts hold back the water up top. So those culverts open from the bottom to the top and at first the top culverts stay closed.
The Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan2 and Water Security Agency guidelines3 were used to build in the project. Basically, when the project was engineered, the water flows such as the water flow at the top end and the peak flow of the water entering the Moose Jaw River were identified.
The construction of the ditch started in the fall of 2012 and was finished in a very timely manner by the winter of 2013. The three main channels did not get grassed until the summer of 2013 and there was heavy snowfall and spring run-off in the winter but there was no damage to the project. The initial group was 14 landowners in 2011 and by 2016 it included about 50 producers in two rural municipalities (Briere, 2016a). As the land was consolidated by bigger farms (around 1400 acres), now there are 8 landowners controlling that same amount of land. 14,800 acres that drain from near Rouleau toward Moose Jaw.
Forming a C&D
The Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan, legislated in 1949, allows land-owners in a certain area to petition for a C&D Association (The Saskatchewan Gazette, 2014; Briere, 2016a) .C&Ds are normally drainage, or sub-drainage, basins defined by hydrology of the landscape (WSA, 2017). C&Ds are producer led organizations with an elected board with the ability to control land, design, construct, and maintain flood control and other works on be- half of producers within the area. Producers within or close to a C&D area can request to add a parcel of land to the C&D for drainage or take a land out of the C&D if drainage is not happening (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016; Briere, 2016b).
C&Ds work closely with WSA and WSA has the authority to apply taxes to the municipal tax roll within the C&Ds for construction and maintenance costs (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016). A legally binding petition should be developed with WSA, signed by two-thirds of the landowners, and then presented to the Minister in charge for approval to form a C&D. Similar to the process of becoming a C&D, the producer group brings drainage works into regulatory compliance and new engineered works also should be approved by WSA for the construction to take place (Drainage Stewardship Upper Souris Watershed Association, 2016; WSA, 2017).
The cost of Okabena project was CAD $900,000. The engineering and design of the ditch cost CAD $68,000. The construction of the ditch cost approximately $700,000 and there were some other contingency expenses.
The funding came partially from the province and partially from the producers through the C&D levies. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and the Provincial Council of Add Boards (PCAB) contributed through the Canada-Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Program for a cost sharing project. This relief fund of CAD 280000 was available as the government was trying to come up with a solution to the excess water problem apart from crop insurance and other ad hoc payments, which are band-aid approaches and there was funding available for producers to reduce sedimentation and erosion and improve water quality. The Farm Stewardship Program was to fund 75% of the total project costs up to a maximum of $280,000. The remaining were to be funded by the landowners and costs per acre for maintenance levied on rural municipal taxes (Briere, 2016a). The levy was $53 an acre and the distribution over 10 years facilitated the payment for landowners.
In 2012, the Okabena C&D Board requested the local Government Committee of Saskatchewan Municipal Board (SMB) to incur expenditures and create a debt not payable within the current year, in the sum of up to $800,000. The amount of debt to be payable on completion of construction and finalization of long-term borrowing, but not later than December 31, 2013 with interest at a fixed interest rate not to exceed 5.6% per annum, payable annually. The local Government Committee authorized the SMB to borrow the sum of $800,000.
Tests within Okabena in 2016 have shown a significant reduction in bacteria and sedimentation which improves water quality entering the Moose Jaw River’s main channel because the water is now flowing with a less velocity and through a grassed natural waterway (Briere, 2016a). Overall, there was high satisfaction of work by the producers and the Okabena C and D is now managed by a board that jointly controls how the runoff is dealt with.
Saskatchewan Drainage Regulations
In 2012, Saskatchewan in its 25-year Water Security Plan, made a promise to more effectively address agricultural drainage problems (WSA, 2021). In 2013, the province launched a six- month online consultation in response to mounting concerns and complaints. Out of the 500 received responses, 88 percent supported drainage and 87 percent believed a new policy was required. There was also significant interest in forming new conservation and development authorities (Briere, 2016b). As a result of these consultations with farmers and other stakeholders, new provincial agri- cultural drainage regulations were developed and announced in 2015 (WSA, 2021). The new regulations brought a shift with emphasizing on compliance, organized drainage, and larger group projects to limit illegal drainage by individuals. Downstream producers had complained many years about illegal drainage. The WSA estimates there are about 150,000 quarter sections of land with unapproved drainage (Briere, 2016b). Producers can drain water on their land but they need approval to move it elsewhere. The new regulations include relaxed land control requirements which allow agreements between neighbors to move water as long as they sat-isfy all the impacted downstream landowners (Briere, 2016c).
The Research Process
Phone call and email correspondence with main project leaders and government officials concluded three interviews that provided supplementary information. Interviewees were selected and contacted based on the main contacts and project leaders found during the literature review. Interview questions were designed to understand the specific roles of each partner and their experience working in the project. The interviews were conducted over the phone in October to December 2020 (Table 1).
Barriers and Challenges
Some of the barriers identified in the interview process had to do with the complication in the process of establishing C&Ds. As Okabena was the first C&D that was established in more than thirty years, almost everyone that was involved with C&Ds in the Ministry of Agriculture was retired or in another position. Therefore, at first it was challenging for the producers to understand the Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan and follow the different processes that needed to be completed to establish the C&D. Moreover, one of the respondents identified that as the C&D legislation is from 1949, some of the processes are lengthy and could possibly be adapted. For example, R1 proposed that mailing and signing process-es could be adjusted to be provided through emails. The respondent believes from the initial conception of the idea to forming the C&D, implementing the design and constructions, to actual functioning of C&D is the minimum of five years and a large part would be the process of working with different government agencies to get approvals. The respondent mentioned that at times different government agencies such as SaskEnergy, SaskPower, and Ministry of Environment seemed to not be communicating well with each other and not having a good understanding of what the other agency is doing.
Another difficulty that respondents pinpointed is related to the technical aspects of the project that they had to come up with a suitable design without altering the natural course of the water. That was one of the challenges they had to deal with as at times there were curvy flows that they wanted to change to make the flow in a straighter line but they should have followed the natural course of the water drainage.
Success Stories and Champions
Okabena as a Model
After overcoming the challenges of understanding the Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan and establishing Okabena as a C&D area, Okabena was used as a model and more C&Ds were created in the area. The members of the Okabena C&D consider the completion of the project as a legacy in the area as the Okabena was the first C&D in the province in thirty years.
R1 has been involved in creating another C&D after Okabena and believes the process went much more smoothly because of their familiarity with the process. Moreover, R2 in MJRWS has written a manual for the province on how to develop a C&D. To the respondent’s knowledge, this manual has been used for creating at least 5 other C&Ds in the province after Okabena.
Creating Communities, Leadership, and Collaboration
Another interesting aspect of the Okabena project was the collaboration between producers and the volunteerism and the leadership that was demonstrated in the community. As the petition had to be signed by the landowners within the area to form the C&D, the producers that had taken the initiative of forming the C&D and later created the C&D board, had one-on-one conservations with each producer. Through these conservations, the producers understood how that the project would be a benefit to them and agreed to be involved in it. R1 mentioned that they would explain that through this project, the downstream area that holds water in the spring could be managed by having an outlet and minimize the harm to all. R1 highlighted that the leaders of the project, specifically at these initial phases should have the patience to talk to people and be good communicators.
R2 also highlighted the importance of leadership both on the producers’ side and the government to care about the mandate of the project and engaging people to make a difference. R2 mentioned that when developing the C&D, leaders or champions of the community should be identified as the community also will support and follow them. R2 also mentioned a positive quality of C&Ds is that they are community-based projects. They create communities so that landowners work together for the betterment and are committed to their collective benefits. In this way, no single landowner will simply act alone on their self-interest to create ditches. Instead, they worked together to implement the environmental components of the project such as vegetating ditches and staging the water.
Change of Attitudes
R1 pointed out that the change of attitude between the producers might have contributed to these projects moving forward more than anything and that everyone has understood that they should work together to solve issues. R1 explains that when the C&D was first established, there were some hard feelings between landowners that was holding them back from working together that eventually were solved with demonstrating more openness and willingness by the community to put aside the incidents of the past and work towards a common objective for a collective benefit. For example, someone would remember someone else had drained water in their land. There was also the misconception that everybody should be equaland if they are doing better, they are doing something illegal but now they congratulate each other because of the hard work. R1 mentioned that another factor that benefited the project was that there were not a large number of landowners so they could work closely and cooperatively.
R2 also mentioned that there were a lot of meetings with the landowners and in the first meetings, there were challenges but eventually the producers agreed that there is a benefit to having a C&D and worked together.
Communication with Stakeholders
R1 pinpointed possible partners such as the Rural Municipalities (RM) should also be identified. Communication with producers and urban municipalities, in this case Moose Jaw, was essential to ensure they are aware of the benefits of a controlled tributary that will not contribute to peak flows (Briere, 2016b). In the case of Okabena, the RM of Redburn was positive that by having the drainage and installing the culverts through a C&D, they would protect their corporate infrastructure and contributed to the project by installing the culverts and cutting down expenses. R1 also emphasized the importance of MJRWS and WSA in the success of the project.
C&D Governance and Maintenance
R1 pinpointed that aside from the partial funding from the government that contributed greatly to the project, the producers are a self-sufficient group that have managed by working cooperatively together to solve water problems and believes that is the nature of rural Saskatchewan. As an organization, every C&D has a yearly audit to set the budget that is required for it to operate and the budget comes from levies on the landowners. Currently, there is a C&D Board consisting of 5 members governing and overseeing the C&D based on C&D legislation. The board is all volunteers that get reimbursed for annual meetings. The board charges the landowners with 70 cents an acre for operations and 38 cents an acre for administration. The board has a secretary that helps with ongoing work such as complaints, record-keeping, expenses, and maintenance.
The board is responsible for the water infrastructure in the area and the water that flowsthrough the main ditch onward into Lake Winnipeg. Therefore, if there are any issues with culverts not draining properly in the C&D or if there are constructions or activities in neighboring areas that may impact the quality of water in the Okabena C&D area or in case of any concerns, the board maintains the integrity and may consult with WSA.
In an example, the board was consulted as a third party to put forth their concern so that everything is discussed before the certificate of construction for a neighbor gets approved, even though the construction was legislated by provincial regulations from the Ministry of Environment.
Creating Okabena C&D as the Water Adaptation
When asked why a C&D coordination was favored upon other means of controlling the drainage, R2 highlighted the role of producers and their self-sufficiency in funding. R2 explained the land-based draining was large and a C&D area with a board could better fund and maintain the project as the producers would have mind control on their work and if they need maintenance or infrastructure replacements, it is easier to fund it in a levy system. R2 also mentioned liability insurance is provided to C&Ds through the Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association.
Climate Change and Future of C&Ds
R2 believes more C&Ds are going to be developed and climate change may play a role in government’s focus on C&Ds. R2 said because of Saskatchewan’s extreme weather conditions, climate change has escalated the need to act and the Water Security Agency has a strong agricultural water management strategy. Similarly, our neighboring provinces have strong mitigation plans. R2 believes the mandate of creating more C&Ds to protect the water will be carried by a partnership between Saskatchewan Conservation and Development Association, Water Security Agency as the regulator, and MJRWS from an environmental benefit avenue with a stewardship approach.
Climate Change and Producers
R1 mentioned that producers have seen the change in the area by experiencing repetitivedry and wet cycles every ten years. R1 believes producers are concerned about the climate change and the environment because they are the stewards of the land and as a result, their farming practices and the technology they use for pesticides have changed. When asked if the C&Ds need any support from the government, R1 highlighted the importance of the government educating and having interaction with people. R1 stated local watersheds need additional funding and support from different government departments, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Highways, Environment, and Municipal Affairs to establish C&Ds and producers should also be more patient with government timelines and processes. R1 also believed the support that studies similar to ours are valuable to provide a better understanding of why these projects take place, why they benefit the agricultural community, and why they are a benefit to the society as a whole.
In many respects, the Okabena C&D project was a success and there are several lessons that can be learned from this project and implemented into a framework for best practices in adaptive water management. As Okabena was the first C&D in the province after more than thirty years, at first it was challenging for the producers to understand the Conservation and Development Act of Saskatchewan and follow the different processes that needed to be completed to establish the C&D. However, after its completion, Okabena worked as a model to create more C&Ds in the province. MJRWS a produced a manual on developing C&Ds that is available online and at least five other C&Ds were developed in the province after Okabena.
By developing C&Ds, landowners engage to work collaboratively to tackle agricultural water management issues as a community rather than as individuals and have local governance over local water management issues. For creating and implementing water management projects within their boundaries, producers are able to borrow financial resources, expropriate land and introduce administrative and operational levies to the municipal tax roll. Establishment of C&Ds is growingly known as an effective public interest tool to provide responsible water management on agricultural lands (WSA, 2017). The lessons learned are illustrated below (Table2).
The goal of this case study is to understand the Okabena C&D project and learn lessons to inform best practices for water management. The project had several successes. It brought together various stakeholders from the government, producers, and private contractors and was able to capitalize on funding from several sources. The proj