Farmers fear $1-billion Property Value Loss from New Water Protection Law Financial run-off

Agriculture, Frontier Centre, Uncategorized, Water, Worth A Look

DUNREA — Manitoba farm leaders are frantically trying to convince the province to change new legislation designed to save Lake Winnipeg that could cost farmers over $1 billion, according to some estimates.

Farm groups like Keystone Agricultural Producers are holding secret meetings with the province to urge officials to make the act more incentive-based, rather than penalty-based, and drop its zone system.

“It’s terrible. It’s unbelievable,” said Robert Bessant, who estimates his farm lost $300,000 in value with the passage of the Water Protection Act earlier this year.

The new Water Protection Act declares 500 acres of Bessant’s farm as Zone 4 land and therefore no longer farmable except to graze livestock. Bessant says the designation has caused the land’s value to crash from $400,000, to just $100,000. That’s on land south of Brandon that has been sown with crops for three generations, and that yielded over 40 bushels of canola an acre last year.

Zone 4 lands are places the province deems are on marginal soils prone to excessive runoff of nutrients like phosphorous, which contribute to algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg.

Similar horror stories are being told by thousands of farmers across Manitoba. The new legislation defines 15 per cent of Manitoba crop land and pasture as Zone 4: land that can no longer be cropped or used to keep animals year round, except for temporary grazing. That totals a staggering 2.5 million acres of land, or 6,500 square kilometres, of farm land.

Most farmers only began to understand the implications of the act at public meetings in March. Many farmers, generally well-mannered even in protest, lost their composure as the act was explained to them.

Politicians lost it, too. Tory MLA Jack Penner (Emerson) refused to give up the floor at a meeting in Steinbach, prompting chairman Richard Sawka to call Penner’s tirade the worst he’d witnessed. The Steinbach meeting turned away so many farmers that the government held a second meeting. That was packed, too.

Farm groups like Keystone Agricultural Producers are being tight-lipped right now so as not to jeopardize new talks with the province. “The current proposal is not a workable proposal,” was the only comment from Ian Wishart, KAP vice-president.

The new act is more than a proposal. The Water Protection Act is enabling legislation, meaning the legislation is in place but smaller details still need to be worked out. The act clearly targets agriculture. Government studies estimate 15 per cent of phosphorous entering Lake Winnipeg comes from Manitoba farms.

The new act “will cost agriculture well over $1 billion” in lost land values and value of buildings on the land, said Les Routledge, a member of the Turtle Mountain Sustainable Development Corp., who is helping farmers get out their message. That estimate is arrived at by cutting by more than half the value of 15 per cent of Manitoba farm land.

“It’s not just coming out of farmers’ bank accounts, it’s coming out of rural municipalities as well (which depend on the farm economy),” said Routledge.

Farmers say it will run them out of business. Those farmers preparing to retire have seen the value of their land, which makes up their pension, disappear. Confusion over property values has frozen sales. Some areas hardest hit by the current legislation include the Red River Valley, southeastern Manitoba, the South Interlake, and the Central Plains, like Dunrea, just south of Brandon, and 240 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg:

* “It’s going to fold my farm,” said Pernell Bessant, who farms west of Dunrea, which is more famous for being on the migration route for skeins of sky-darkening snow geese each spring and fall.

Pernell Bessant keeps 50 cattle on 240 acres. His entire farm has been categorized Zone 4 land. He is not near a waterway, as many people suppose, but in a valley, like scores of other small cattle ranchers across Manitoba.

Where can Pernell keep his cattle? He can’t. You can’t have a winter set-up, like a corral, on Zone 4 land because that results in manure build-up. Nor can you spread manure on Zone 4 land.

To winter his cattle, he would have to buy land, dig a well, and incur other costs totalling over $100,000. His farm is too small to invest that kind of money. “You’re beat,” he said.

* Sandy MacDonald owns 320 acres of crop land that has been declared Zone 4. In addition to the loss of income from crops, he estimates his land’s value has dropped from $128,000, to about $40,000.

But MacDonald wonders what price he could really get, with millions of acres of declassified agricultural land entering the market.

“The land is worthless,” MacDonald said.

The province is trying to calm producers. The province says farmers shouldn’t take too literally the zone maps it distributed, or its estimate that 15 per cent of agricultural land is Zone 4 land, found on page 8 of its Regulation Under the Manitoba Water Protection. Peoples’ ability to pay will also be a factor, said Dwight Williamson, director of the province’s Water Stewardship Board. “The maps simply provide the best available information for where you find these types of land. What really counts is what you find when you get out on the landscape,” he said.

Environment Minister Steve Ashton said the government is not back-tracking. It has completed a second round of consultation, and is now reviewing the results. “We’re going to take the time to get it right,” he said.

“We do have a process for science-related appeals for classification of lands,” Ashton added.

The Water Protection Act stems from findings that phosphorous and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg have increased 10 and 13 per cent respectively since the early 1970s. Phosphorous promotes algae growth, which has increased on Lake Winnipeg (and on most lakes in North America, including the Great Lakes).

The fear is algae growth could become so great as to kill Lake Winnipeg. Algae eventually decomposes, which uses up oxygen in the water, which kills food sources for fish, which eventually triggers massive fish kills.

New farmers or farmers wanting to expand have to comply with regulations immediately. Otherwise, farmers have two years to come up with a plan. They have until 2013 to phase in changes to their operations.

But the act affects the value of the land immediately, said Lonnie Dunlop, councillor of the RM of Riverside that surrounds Dunrea. There will also have to be new assessments for all of rural Manitoba, he said. Assessments values of Zone 4 land will be slashed, and other properties will have to make up the tax loss.

“I wish the legislation had been more fair,” said Dunlop.

By comparison, Winnipeg must cut its treated sewage emissions by 10 per cent by the end of this year; by 30-40 per cent of current levels by 2012; and by 60-70 per cent of current levels by 2014. That is supposed to cut Winnipeg’s contribution of phosphorous to Lake Winnipeg from six per cent of the total today, to two per cent.

Where’s it coming from?

The Water Stewardship Board of Manitoba estimates 53 per cent of the phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg is coming from outside Manitoba, and 47 per cent from inside.

Here’s the estimated breakdown:

OUTSIDE MANITOBA:

  • 32% from North Dakota and Minnesota
  • 10% from Ontario
  • 11% from Saskatchewan and Alberta, and some from North Dakota up the Souris River.

INSIDE MANITOBA:

  • 17% naturally occurring off landscape
  • 15% from agriculture *
  • 6% from Winnipeg waste-water emissions and storm sewer runoff
  • 4% from rural town waste-water emissions
  • 5% dust particles in the air

*Nutrient contributions from bedroom communities surrounding major centres like Winnipeg, and from cottage areas, are mostly included under agriculture’s
phosphorus contribution.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca