By Jim Harding, Ph. D.
March 24th the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (QVEA) hosted a forum for candidates in the two main ridings abutting the Qu’Appelle Valley. They were asked: “What will you and your party do to protect and restore the extremely vulnerable landscape, habitats and watershed within the Qu’Appelle Valley?” This was the first electoral forum with an environmental focus in Saskatchewan history.
The 100 plus people attending were from up and down the valley area. Candidates from all five parties committed, but Liberal David Delainey later cancelled as did NDP Ashley Nemeth. In the end Sask Party MLAs Glen Hart and Don McMorris, Progressive Conservatives (PC) Rick Swenson and Carol Olson, NDP Mary Ann Harrison and Green Justin Stranach participated.
I moderated the forum and listened carefully with an open mind to what was and wasn’t said.
In his opener Hart said the government was “enforcing drainage regulations” and that with extreme weather Regina had little control over its sewage releases. Olson (PC) stated there should be more “accountability to maintain the integrity of the environment.” PC leader Swenson said there were things to learn from the past Qu’Appelle Implementation Board (1975-1984). He argued that Regina failed to design its infrastructure to protect the Qu’Appelle watershed, noting that Moose Jaw had long been using effluent for irrigation. He noted that 60% of Saskatchewan residents depend on water from Lake Diefenbaker, and thought Water Security should be “moving up” its 25-year plan.
NDP Harrison opposed “industry self-policing” and called for a “stronger rural voice on the environment.” She advocated introducing a Biodiversity Index, such as in Norway. McMorris stated “our government takes environment very seriously”, highlighting the $1.5 billion spent on carbon capture, part of its oil-recovery program. McMorris said “water quality is near and dear to me”, reassuring the audience that the province’s “checks and balances” would protect the valley. He noted that Water Security had issued an environmental protection order (a letter of non-compliance) to Regina.
Green candidate Stranach called for more participatory democracy and all-party collaboration to create a solid Action Plan to better protect the valley.
WATER SUPPLY, FLOODING, MARSHES
Understandably, MLAs would defend the Sask Party government while opposition candidates would point out shortcomings and propose alternatives. However, the audience questions and discussion were educational and got beyond this partisanship, which was what the hosting group intended.
Water supply and industry “rights” got some attention. McMorris claimed “it is the people’s water”. Swenson however, wondered why the public agency Sask Water would consider building a pipeline from Buffalo Pound “just for Yancoal’s use”. Swenson argued that this Chinese state corporation “could be here for 50 years” and its obligations weren’t clear. MLA Hart rebutted that we had been doing “solution mining for 30 years” and had regulations in place.
Using the expanding water in the Quill Lakes for solution mining was again suggested, as was the call to stop destructive drainage by reimbursing farmers to “store water for drought years”. “Pumping water onto our neighbours is not a solution”, added a Southey farmer.
The province’s sale of environmentally-sensitive marshland for a possible hotel-marina was discussed. Concern was expressed that there was no public consultation; McMorris commented that crown land can be sold “without a public process”. In response PC Olson said that the “people should have a say” about whether a marina went ahead in an environmentally-sensitive location.
CARBON, RENEWABLES AND DISCONNECTS
Carbon pricing came up after the coffee break. McMorris again stressed the government’s carbon capture project, claiming the world needed “clean coal”. Swenson, on the other hand, called for “new forms of energy”, noting all the “co-generation of electricity” that could come from waste heat in the resource sector. NDP Harrison called for more “investment in alternatives”.
McMorris noted that Sask Power is now committed to “50% renewables by 2030” but added that we need coal for “baseload power”. Green Party Stranach noted that there was a technological revolution in storing renewable energy, mentioning the Tesla battery.
The disconnect between rhetoric about environmental regulation and lack of enforcement was discussed. McMorris stressed that as we move forward we need to “look at what we all are doing.” Harrison commented that the province didn’t “react enough” when Regina dumped sewage. Swenson noted that since the Qu’Appelle Implementation Plan was shelved “land use management went to the municipalities”.
PC Olson reiterated that “the government needs to be accountable for enforcing rules”, claiming that “rural Saskatchewan is being left behind by the Sask Party”. MLA Hart repeated that we have regulations in place that have worked. Swenson responded that “we’ve done some disturbing things” and I hope “we’ve gotten a bit smarter”.
What wasn’t discussed was as important as what was. Climate change reducing the amount of water going into Lake Diefenbaker wasn’t discussed. No one raised the cost-ineffectiveness of spending on carbon capture to salvage fossil fuels. What if Saskatchewan had instead invested $1.5 billion in a conversion to renewables, reducing and then phasing out coal, like other jurisdictions? No one discussed why the Sask Party government took so long to set targets for renewables, while spending so much time and energy advocating nuclear power. While McMorris said we can now “put renewables on the grid”, no one noted that Saskatchewan doesn’t have a Feed-In Tariff (FIT), which is what accelerated renewables elsewhere.
There wasn’t much concrete discussion about the Qu’Appelle Valley environment, which is what the forum was for. NDP Harrison did raise the issue of a Biodiversity Index. And if environmental regulation is working as both government MLA’s claimed, why hasn’t this prevented the continual deterioration of biodiversity and water quality in the Qu’Appelle Valley? McMorris was enthusiastic about Water Security’s 3-year study, but it only looks at nutrient sources and doesn’t include the agricultural chemicals (pesticides) Water Security admits contribute to the highly stressed state of our watershed.
Though it could be interpreted as a diversion, McMorris was probably right that there are many factors contributing to the declining health of the Qu’Appelle Valley. It is easy for valley municipal officials to point the finger at Regina yet ignore their own responsibilities for land-use protection and environmental stewardship. The vast majority of municipal officials in the valley area were noticeable by their absence.
This was a preliminary public discussion which the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (QVEA) hopes to build upon. The need to reintroduce something like the Qu’Appelle Implement Plan, which Swenson stressed, has to be put front and centre. One attendee commented that under this Plan, the marshland that the province was selling for a private marina was to have been protected as wildlife habitat and wondered “why this was never done?”
The caring public needs to continue to ask questions.