In the farmyard that once belonged to Nick Schmidt, lake water now laps towards his grain bins, outbuildings and corrals. A vintage car sits in water nearly up to its bumper. Looking at the scene, Dwight Odelein, a local farmer and nephew of Schmidt, recalls that 20 years ago, the water was five or six miles away — far enough that it couldn’t be seen from the house.
The nearest water body, Mud Lake, was completely dry in the late ’90s. Then the wet years began. Mud Lake filled, then it merged with Big and Little Quill.
Today with a good arm, you could stand by the house and wing a baseball into the spreading lake.
Since 2004, the Quill Lakes’ water level has risen about seven metres. That’s a major rise for a relatively shallow basin, and so far it has displaced about nine families in central Saskatchewan. If the water keeps rising, another nine farmyards could be at risk, according to a report by Golder Associates. The rise also threatens three provincial highways and a Canadian Pacific rail line.
Producers have lost about 7,000 hectares of private farmland, according to a 2016 KGS report. Those still farming and ranching near the lake suffer economically, even if they haven’t lost land to it yet.
“When the wind gets up to 60 to 70 kms, the lake will move a half mile,” says Ian McNichol, who farms and raises cattle south of the Quill Lakes, and is also a councillor with Rural Municipality (RM) of Mount Hope. Those surges drown crops before the water recedes, he explains.
As of June 2018, the lake had risen to about 520.8 metres above sea level, says McNichol. One metre more, the Golder report says, and it’s likely to spill from a natural outlet south of Dafoe, on the southwest part of Big Quill. Then water would run through the Ducks Unlimited’s Kutawagan complex into Saline Creek and Lanigan Creek before flowing into Last Mountain Lake.
That could be an environmental risk, as the Quill Lakes have a smuch higher total dissolved solids (TDS) than Last Mountain Lake.
McNichol is watching closely. Because he’s also chair of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association, he’s in the unenviable position of trying to spearhead an effective solution that everyone around and downstream of the Quill Lakes can live with.
It is a tough problem. The contributing factors are complex, the stakes are high, and the proposed solutions are costly and controversial.
With the Quill Lakes, weather is “the major factor because if we were having this conversation 20 years ago, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says David Sauchyn, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Regina. Sauchyn is also part of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, which conducts climate change research.
For the last 25 years, Sauchyn and his colleagues have studied tree rings on old wood they’ve collected from across the Prairies and up into the Northwest Territories. Sauchyn says they’ve documented that multi-year wet and dry cycles have recurred over 1,000 years. Dry cycles can last 10 to 15 years, and wet cycles 20 to 25.
“We know it’s driven by the circulation of the Pacific Ocean, something called the Pacific decadal oscillation,” Sauchyn says. “I often tell people, ‘If you’re concerned about too much water, just wait a couple decades, because it will disappear.’”
“But of course, that’s not feasible.”
Meanwhile, McNichol has been researching the lake’s history to see if it has overflowed naturally in the past. And although Odelein is not on the watershed board, he’s joined in. They estimate they’ve spent at least 10 hours a week for the last two years searching for information.
“Dwight and I like giving low numbers. We don’t like to scare people,” says McNichol dryly.
They’ve been talking to locals and scouring the internet and local museums for information. They’ve found documents as far back as 1886 detailing the area’s geography and where water was flowing out of the Quill Lakes basin. A map in the Nokomis museum from the early ’40s shows a creek running from Big Quill to Last Mountain Lake. A Department of the Interior annual report from 1879 describes a similar creek.
Ducks Unlimited’s Kutawagan Lake complex, on the south side of the Quills, is also a point of contention. Odelein and McNichol say that a Ducks’ dam blocks the natural outlet, keeping the water level in the Quills higher than it would be naturally, but Michael Champion, Ducks’ head of industry and government relations, has told the Regina Leader-Post that the dam has not “artificially inflated the topography of the area.”
Odelein and McNichol have kept digging. McNichol says they have located a channel that did flow between the two lakes. An engineering firm has analyzed core samples and determined the location and width of the channel. The engineers estimate the bottom was between 519.6 and 520 metres above sea level. But they need to collect and analyze more core samples to pinpoint the natural bottom of the channel.
Breaching the high level would be historic, says Sauchyn. “But I can’t put a probability on it because it remains to be seen what kind of weather we have over the next few months and few years.”
Climate will be a combination of climate change’s impact and the natural variability that’s existed for centuries on the Prairies. Warmer, moister conditions will amplify hydrological extremes, Sauchyn says. Those conditions increase the potential for more precipitation.
“But if the precipitation goes someplace else, then you have a condition of a water deficit in a warmer climate. Both ends of the water spectrum are being exaggerated or amplified by global warming.”
In 50 years, climate change will be a more dominant force, says Sauchyn. But right now we’re in a transition period, he says, so unless a strong La Niña or El Niño takes charge, weather predictions are more random.
Both Odelein and McNichol are concerned that they’ll see more severe years like the spring of 2011. After 2011, McNichol’s municipality had several washed-out roads and no holding capacity for run-off in the basin.
“We’re getting more extreme weather events. That’s undeniable,” says Odelein.
Iron Spring Creek is one of many tributaries feeding the Quill Lakes. The creek is a man-made channel, constructed decades earlier and managed by the local conservation district. Conservation districts were first formed in the province in 1949, under provincial legislation. The districts allow farmers to create and manage drainage ditches and related infrastructure. Wet weather in the 1950s boosted their numbers.
This channel begins around the town of Spalding, which is over 30 km north of Big Quill. It runs west of Highway 6 through lush green pastures and fields into the north end of Big Quill, near Watson. The landscape here forms a shallow V, with the drainage ditch in the middle. Smaller channels feed into it.
The soil around here is highly variable, says local producer Gord Moellenbeck. One moment you’re walking on good farmland, and with the next step it’s marginal.
While Iron Spring Creek looks placid in late June, it’s a different beast in the spring. Canoeists have been pulled under. Last spring Moellenbeck posted a video of the flood control gate in his pasture. The water was roiling.
That gate is controlled by the local conservation district, Moellenbeck explains. The idea is to manage the flow so it doesn’t flood downstream. Sometimes nature doesn’t co-operate, and the water is so high that it re-routes around the gate.
Iron Spring Creek is just one of the more important tributaries feeding into the basin. According to the Golder report, it contributes about 24 per cent of the tributary water flowing into the Quill Lakes.
But the more headline-grabbing water sources are unapproved ag drainage ditches. In 2015, Saskatchewan brought in new legislation and regulations; all drainage needs to be approved by the Water Security Agency. The agency is encouraging farmers and landowners to create more conservation districts to manage water on a larger scale. Previously created, unapproved drainage systems will not be grandfathered. And because the Quill Lakes are already brimming, the Water Security Agency won’t approve new or existing unapproved projects that drain into the Quill Lakes.
That leaves farmers draining into the Quill Lakes basin with three potential options, according to the Water Security Agency’s website. They may be able to install flow control gates. Or they might be able to consolidate all their drainage, for example, by diverting water into one slough. Finally, they can close channels with ditch blocks, ending drainage. This last option would, in theory, prevent water from flowing into the Quill Lakes.
The level at which ag drainage, both permitted and unapproved, contributes to the Quill Lakes is often a point of debate. The Golder report estimates that ag drainage only contributes about one centimetre per year in wet years to the Quill Lakes. That’s because ag drainage affects only a quarter of the watershed, and because the Quill Lakes have a large holding capacity.
On the other hand, KGS saw potential benefit in restoring wetlands and closing or limiting drainage by landowners and producers. By closing drainage installed by landowners, KGS estimates 300 hectares of private and public land would be saved over five years, and nearly 16,000 hectares over 50 years.
Odelein and McNichol are not sure that would be the case. Most of the big wetlands that hold large volumes of water are a ways north of the Quill Lakes, Odelein says. The land slopes, slowly and steadily, towards the Quill Lakes, and the sloughs become smaller as you approach the lake, he adds.
Odelein has been open about the fact that he has drained some land — he was quoted in a
publication on the issue. But Odelein also does things like seeding some of his marginal land into perennial forage, partly to reduce nutrient run-off. To him, draining small sloughs that dry up partway through the growing season isn’t the same as draining larger wetlands that hold water year-round.
Odelein thinks it makes more sense to drain and seed sloughs less than five acres. The crop will use more water than would be held in the slough, he says, especially given the acres lost to headlands if the slough isn’t seeded. But once a slough hits five acres, it stores more water than a crop would use, he says. That water then tends to evaporate in the early fall.
“One thing we can do in the basin is preserve the large wetlands — five acres or bigger,” says McNichol.
Most farmers aren’t draining the big wetlands, McNichol says, but there are some making big cuts into those water bodies. “That’s the stuff that needs to stop.”
Groundwater is the final player in this saga, and the one that has been the least discussed. But it turns out there is a lot going on underground.
Odelein noticed that after the creeks stopped running this spring, the lake kept rising. He talked to a couple of people and concluded that groundwater must be feeding the lake, too. McNichol has observed something similar on the south side of the lake — the water level in an old dragline gravel pit on his land rises in concert with the lake level.
Even the humble prairie slough runs deep. Researchers, notably James LaBaugh, have shown that sloughs in the upper slopes can leach groundwater to sloughs in the mid- and down-slopes. Les Henry, in Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water, describes these fast-draining recharge sloughs as “sloughs that flush like a toilet.” Water disappears rapidly from these potholes, only to emerge elsewhere.
Looking for solutions
The 640 grid once ran between Big and Little Quill Lakes. It’s about 37 kilometres long. If you want to drive from Wynyard to the town of Quill Lake, Google Maps suggests taking the 640. It’s a 35-minute drive, Google tells you. But you won’t get far.
Today barricades and a large sign stop anyone from driving the 640 on the north side. Past the barricade, the road is strewn with driftwood, fence posts, and lumber from corrals. It submerges about where the bridge was, only to re-emerge as a narrow bank, piled high with driftwood, before disappearing completely. Pelicans occupy the bridge area now.
The 640 was an important grid for the region. Back in 2015, RM Councillor Kerry Holderness told a local radio station that over $2 million worth of grain was hauled on that road each year. McNichol says the RM of Lakeside tried to save the bridge by applying to the Provincial Disaster Assistance Program. They invested millions, McNichol says. But the lake was unrelenting.
Sauchyn says that once we recognize the fluctuations in water and weather, “just about everything we do with water and land has to be adjusted to accommodate that type of variability.”
That means, for example, crop varieties that can handle both wet and dry conditions. This is something that canola breeders are already working on, he says. And municipalities are looking at removing residential housing from flood plains.
As for the Quill Lakes, Sauchyn says we need to figure out how to shed water in wet years and retain water in dry years. There’s no such thing as a “normal year,” he says — it’s usually either too wet or too dry. The next prolonged drought probably isn’t far off, and people will wish they had access to stored water. But, he acknowledges, while it sounds good in theory, it’s difficult in practice.
KGS has examined several detailed options for managing the water. They can be broken down into several groups:
- Do nothing.
- Hold water within the Quill Lakes by blocking the natural outlet and/or separating Big and Little Quill.
- Reroute one or several of the tributaries into other water bodies, such as the Red Deer River or Last Mountain Lake.
- Hold water upland in, for example, Ponass Lake.
- Relocate water from the Quills into deep wells, mines, etc.
- Restore surrounding wetlands.
- Close ag drainage works, put a moratorium on new drainage, enforce regulations around drainage, or create an organization to plan and manage drainage.
But what is the best course? The KGS report states that there is no clear choice.
The Quill Lakes Watershed Association proposed diverting water from Kutawagan Creek into Last Mountain Lake. Golder estimates rerouting Kutawagan would divert nine per cent of the water from the Quills, and cost about $19 million. Diverting Kutawagan would save about 1,100 private and public hectares short-term, and 7,700 hectares over 50 years, KGS estimates.
But the plan garnered intense opposition from communities downstream concerned about water quality.
“What rules do we follow now? Because we were following the rules,” says McNichol. He adds that they were required to have a completed project, including hydraulic modelling and analysis, before they started consulting with stakeholders.
Still, McNichol and Odelein haven’t given up. Communication is key, they say. They’ve invited people who opposed the diversion to Odelein’s farm. They’ve been meeting with downstream stakeholders. Last year, the Quill Lakes Watershed signed a memorandum of understanding with Wascana Upper Qu’Appelle Watershed Association, which includes areas that would be affected by a diversion or overflow.
Melissa Bramham is the new general manager of Wascana Upper Qu’Appelle Watershed. It doesn’t have a definitive position right now, she says, but “they’re aware of the situation. They’re concerned for Quill Lakes and how the ramifications could potentially spill over.”
Bramham says she thinks the Quill Lakes Watershed is trying to come up with the best management strategies it can. Wascana Upper Qu’Appelle is empathetic, she says.
“But at this point there’s not a lot we can do as a watershed other than be in the loop and knowledgeable, and work together collaboratively with the WSA in whatever steps they take.”
“I mean, if it goes to an uncontrolled overflow and…” Bramham trails off, as though considering the consequences. “Nature sometimes has a way of working itself out but you don’t always want to rely on that either.”
As McNichol sees it, drought is the only natural solution to the flooding. If it keeps raining, the lake will rise. His own pasture is at risk if nothing is done.
“We definitely need to do something and work with the government on what is the best situation for everybody.”
Odelein considers this the 11th hour to find a solution. One big storm would be a disaster, he says.
“It’s getting serious. It could spill uncontrollably.”
Make it all Crown land?
In an opinion piece published in the Regina Leader-Post last winter, Lumsden resident Greg Riemer put forward a different proposal. Years earlier, Riemer helped secure 32,000 acres around the Quill Lakes as wildlife land through the Sask Wetland Conservation Corporation. That land had been underwater when the area was originally surveyed.
Riemer suggests the government compensate the farmers who have lost land to the flooding and turn those acres into Crown land. That land should never be resold, Riemer wrote, as doing so would wreak havoc with the next generation of farmers to suffer flooding. Instead, the land should remain some type of Crown land, perhaps co-managed by community pasture associations.
Riemer concludes: “In another 100 years or so when the lake fills up again, no one will be displaced and we can feel good about leaving a legacy there.”