Prairie Drainage Governance

Diagnosing Policy and Governance Effectiveness for Agricultural Water Management During Times of Change

PI: Philip Loring, University of Saskatchewan

Co-I's: Helen Baulch; Patricia Gober; John Pomeroy; Graham Strickert, University of Saskatchewan

This project explores the role of policy and social institutions in the effective governance of agricultural drainage during times of rapid change. Drainage generates tens of millions of dollars through agricultural development for landowners, and has been credited with making huge tracts of lands, including much of the prairies, arable. Drainage can be an important climate change adaptation strategy. Yet, drainage can negatively affect drought risk and resilience, water quality, and biodiversity. Likewise, while a landowner may be using drainage to mitigate their own flooding issues, they may be exacerbating flood risk of their downstream neighbors. While drainage is regulated, these regulations are not always enforced, leading to conflicts in many region. Indeed, debate and conflict over drainage has been ongoing in North America for more than a century (Blann et al., 2009).

Although a good deal is known about drainage from a hydrological and climatic perspective, less is known about the human dimensions of the problem, particularly with respect to the formal and informal social institutions that will be needed to manage these complex systems sustainably under climate change. We are interested here in whether polycentric governance, where groups coordinate at a local level with constraints at higher levels of authority, can yield more resilient communities, and help foster collaboration rather than conflict over drainage challenges. In theory, polycentric governance institutions are thought to be essential for achieving outcomes that are both equitable and environmentally sustainable from the perspective of multiple stakeholders (Deitz et al., 2003). To explore this proposition in the context of drainage, we will create social-ecological models of existing drainage governance, based on the variables and schematic set out in the Social-ecological Systems (SES) Framework (Ostrom, 2009; Ostrom and Cox, 2010). These models will link to hydro-climate models, such that social scenarios can be run based on scenarios of climatic and hydrological change to forecast the impacts of possible societal responses. We will also perform a systematic, comparative case-study of drainage governance in three watersheds to gain a better understanding of how people develop institutions to govern water, and how conflict or collaboration emerges in these processes. Comparative case-study research of drainage policies and institutions issues will focus on Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario.

Canada’s provinces have different drainage management approaches and histories, and Saskatchewan has recently developed new requirements for drainage management that require new kinds of approval and stakeholder coordination, including for existing projects. This presents a key opportunity for research during an active period of institutional development and policy formation.

The products of this work will inform policy to manage drainage, reduce flood risk stemming from drainage problems, add new case studies to the field of institutional analysis, bring social scientists into GWF’s modeling efforts, and set the stage for subsequent work on nutrients. The study will identify points of intervention for addressing drainage conflict, and guidance for developing more robust and resilient water management institutions across Canada. Additionally, this work will provide theoretical advances regarding how to effectively manage other contentious, multi-scale water security issues in addition to drainage, such as management of agricultural nutrients.