by Kristi Cox
It’s not just a heartbreak to see soil blowing east across roads and fields – it’s also an infraction.
Soil erosion has negative effects, not just for the landowner losing precious soil, but also for neighbouring lands, roads, ditches, and buildings. In Alberta, the Soil Conservation Act and the Agricultural Service Board Act pair up to provide protection for this soil and help ensure longevity of agriculture in the province.
The Soil Conservation Act originated in response to the severe wind erosion the prairies saw in the 1930’s. Alberta passed the Control of Soil Drifting Act in 1935, then replaced it in 1962 by the Soil Conservation Act. The root of its purpose is summed up by this:
Duty of landholder
Every landholder shall, in respect of the landholder’s land, take
(a) to prevent soil loss or deterioration from taking place, or
(b) if soil loss or deterioration is taking place, to stop the loss
or deterioration from continuing.
1988 cS-19.1 s3
To understand how this all plays out in practice, we need to look at both the Soil Conservation Act and the Agricultural Service Board Act.
The Agricultural Service Board Act provides direction on how municipalities monitor and enforce the Soil Conservation Act, and others. Municipal district councils can establish an Agricultural Service Board, that functions as an advisory body as well as advising and assisting with agriculture challenges like soil conservation. The council and board must appoint an agricultural fieldman empowered with roles including soil conservation officer. In this role, the agricultural fieldman provides services and education to the producers in the municipality and monitors and enforces the regulations in the Soil Conservation Act.
Generally, landholders are conscientious about preventing wind soil erosion, but when it occurs, soil conservation officers, along with the agricultural service board they represent, can enforce the Act.
Section 4, of the Soil Conservation Act, “Direction to take remedial measures”, states that if the landholder isn’t taking appropriate measures to prevent or stop soil erosion, an officer can serve a notice to the landholder. This notice outlines specific remediation efforts that must be completed in a set timeframe.
If the landholder fails to comply with the terms of the notice, the officer is empowered to complete the work or hire someone to do it. The landholder receives the bill for these expenses. If they aren’t paid by the deadline, the Act allows for the outstanding amount to be placed on the tax roll.
In practice, it is very rare for an officer to serve a notice under the Soil Conservation Act. Municipalities prefer to manage these issues proactively.
“We take proactive steps,” explained Gary Secrist, Lethbridge County Supervisor of Agricultural Services. “If someone’s land is blowing, we go out, and we make phone calls, and get the farmers to take action. We’ve only given one soil erosion notice in about 10 years.”
Todd Green, Newell County Director of Agricultural Services, explained that some municipalities add their own bylaws to address specific areas that are relevant to their specific challenges.
“That’s the great part about the provincial legislation,” said Green. “It’s what’s called enabling legislation – so it enables local and rural municipalities to put in place policies to deal with things that are on a local level. Every municipality is going to have a different approach.”
Secrist explained that Lethbridge County has a soil conservation guideline in its county policy handbook. This addresses how fees are calculated for cleaning county-owned roadways and drainage ditches. They also took the proactive step of putting out ads in local newspapers and posted a public service announcement with links to both tips on wind erosion control and the Soil Conservation Act.
Jason Bullock, Director of Agricultural Services for the Municipal District of Taber, said that following the severe wind erosion in their area this past winter, he is looking to add soil conservation bylaws.
“We don’t have any (soil conservation) bylaws in place,” said Bullock. “I’m looking at putting that in place this winter. We’ve never had anything as dramatic as we did this past winter and spring. We would have a farmer here and there that (had problems), and we deal with that, but not where the whole municipality was blowing.”
In some cases, the landholder isn’t the owner. This can complicate the process, and it is important that owners ensure lease agreements include soil conservation instructions.
“I think there may be an opportunity in lease and rental contracts to have specifics for what the land looks like going into the winter,” said Green. “…for it to be more than a production type of rental lease – a little bit more like a land stewardship type of lease.”
Prevention is best, but if producers find themselves with blowing soil, they must make attempts to control it.
“If your land is blowing, you need to take emergency control measures,” said Secrist. “There are things that can be done. You’re affecting your neighbor relationships as well.”
Landholders can reach out for assistance if they want a proactive plan or to deal with a dire situation.
“The agricultural fieldmen in Alberta are a wealth of knowledge,” explained Green. “When we’re not a wealth of knowledge in the right area, we have the contacts to bring in to make sure we’re doing the right thing. Absolutely the first call can and should be to your local municipality or rural municipality. Talk to your fieldman.”
The Soil Conservation Act is there to ensure that everyone does their part to protect soils from erosion. Ultimately, municipalities want to work with landholders to ensure success for everyone. “I do love the carrot, not the stick,” said Green. “I think most local municipalities do. We’d like to work with our landowners toward a prosperous agriculture community for everybody.”
This is the first in a series of 5 articles
article 2 Economics of Agricultural Blow-Dirt
article 3 Dollars Blowing in the Wind
article 4 Don’t blow good neighbour relations
article 5 Tillage is problematic on The Prairies