Project pulled after emails show 'very cozy' relationship between Sask. gov't and Quill Lakes water group

The Quill Lakes Watershed Association has withdrawn its current plan for a water diversion channel to Last Mountain Lake, but its future plans are being eyed cautiously by watchers of the project.

Announcement follows surfacing of emails shedding light on proponent's relationship with province

A sign is posted in Craven, Sask., in opposition to the water diversion project. ( Auralee MacPherson)

The Quill Lakes Watershed Association #14 has cancelled its divisive water diversion project, saying it has run out of time to get the required studies and approvals to meet its spring construction deadline. 

Chairperson Kerry Holderness announced in a news release Monday the association is withdrawing its proposal to build a 25-kilometre diversion channel to Last Mountain Lake. The project is meant to provide relief for flood-besieged landowners in the Quill Lakes area, but has come under fire by people living downstream.

"The association's board [members] feel that there isn't enough time left to acquire the appropriate studies and requirements to be granted approval by our spring construction deadline," said Holderness.

'The association's board [members] feel that there isn't enough time left to acquire the appropriate studies and requirements to be granted approval by our spring construction deadline.- Chairperson Kerry Holderness

The announcement was made on the same day a University of Saskatchewan professor claimed emails obtained by CBC News showed "a very cozy, collaborative relationship" between the association and Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment, which had decided, to much protest, not to order an environmental assessment for the project.

In its release Monday, the association said it would keep working on a solution that will "follow all necessary regulatory steps."

"I think what this shows is the amount of hard work of communities, members of academia, civil society essentially, has a very important role to play in keeping the government and proponents honest," said Jason MacLean, a University of Saskatchewan law professor with a specialty in environmental law. 

The Saskatchewan Alliance for Water Sustainability (SAWS) met the news with cautious optimism, saying it was both "pleased" but that it was concerned the association would reapply with the same plan and that it would again not require an environmental assessment.

Holderness could not be reached for comment about the association's future plans.

Jack Coop, a lawyer representing the Pasqua First Nation, which had filed a legal challenge to the project, said "we still have not yet been formally advised by QLWA or its lawyers on the meaning of the news release, or its significance to the [the Pasqua First Nation's] judicial review application."

Emails detail private discussions

The emails obtained by CBC News were between members of the Quill Lakes Watershed Association and both the environment ministry and Water Security Agency, a Crown corporation the ministry tapped to help the association with its application.

The exchanges, some of which are partially redacted, span from March to October 2017, when the public first learned that assistant deputy minister Wes Kotyk had approved the proposed 25-kilometre water diversion channel to Last Mountain Lake.

The emails show "a relationship where a perfectly legitimate request for information and guidance morphs into a completely behind-the-scenes regulatory process obscured from public transparent review and scrutiny," said MacLean.
Jason MacLean is a University of Saskatchewan associate professor with a speciality in environmental law. (University of Saskatchewan)

The emails were obtained through a freedom-of-information request by consultant Jeff Olson on behalf of SAWS.

SAWS is part of a network of groups concerned about the project's environmental impacts on the Lower Qu'Appelle River Valley watershed, plus the government's decision not to order an environmental assessment despite the lack of concrete — and publicly available — information about the project.

One of the concerned groups, the Calling Lakes Ecomuseum, shared the emails with CBC News, which MacLean then reviewed.

'This is a priority for us': ministry

From early on, the association stressed that time was of the essence for the project.

After being asked to do an environmental study, the association wrote in April to the Water Security Agency that "the study we have to do now is going to slow us up a lot."

The association then asked the agency to forward any previous studies on the project area.

A map from the water diversion project's operational plan outlines the path of the proposed channel beginning south of Big Quill Lake. (Resource Management International Inc.)

In an email to a superior two months later, a senior Ministry of Environment official summarized a recent meeting with the QLWA in which "technical deficiencies" in the association's proposal were flagged and more information was asked of the association.

"QLWA wants to move as quickly as possible so ENV will ensure the 'asks' are answerable either by information readily available [or] through existing ministry resources," wrote the official.

"There is likely still some dissatisfaction from their view on the pace," the official continued, "but I did my best to assure them this is a priority for us and that the process ensures credibility, which will lead to better success in the future phases of the project."

'Utterly contrary to the public interest'

MacLean says the emails and the exchanges they describe go from "information exchange to a very cozy, collaborative relationship" and that the ministry — as the regulator of the project — "simply can't have it both ways. It can't so closely collaborate with a proponent and yet, at the same time, maintain the posture of being a neutral arbiter."

"All of that still sounds to me like it's far more slanted toward facilitation as opposed to arm's length evaluation," added MacLean.

"There's the sense that 'we are going to shape this process as much as possible in order to suit the proponent's needs.'

"This is utterly contrary to the public interest."

Assistant deputy minister Wes Kotyk signed off on the project on Sept. 8.

Scott Moe, the Saskatchewan Party leadership candidate who served as environment minister until a week before that approval, could not be reached for comment Monday. 

Assistant deputy minister Wes Koytk of the Ministry of Environment approved the proposed 25-kilometre water diversion channel to Last Mountain Lake (Radio-Canada)

A week before the approval, the association wrote the Water Security Agency for advice on "what potential conflicts or roadblocks we face so we can prepare for them."

In particular, the association asked about Ducks Unlimited, which has wetland projects that could, in Ducks Unlimited's view, be affected by the diversion project.

The agency told the QLWA it should consult Ducks Unlimited, and Kotyk's final approval stated that the QLWA "conducted extensive engagement activities with various stakeholders in areas surrounding the Quill Lakes and downstream areas."

But Michael Champion, the head of government and industry relations for Ducks Unlimited, previously told CBC News the organization was not consulted and only found out about the QLWA's proposal more than a month after Kotyk's approval.

Mixed messages on consultation 

That's not the only inconsistency suggested by the emails and the public record so far.

Kotyk has said the ministry's decision about whether the project warranted an environmental assessment did not trigger the government's duty to consult potentially affected Indigenous groups.

But in a May 2017 note to the QLWA, the ministry said such groups "should also be considered key stakeholders and engaged as early as possible."

"Those two positions are irreconcilable," said MacLean.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca