When Aura Lee MacPherson went to a public session in Fort Qu'Appelle last July about the latest plan to divert water into Last Mountain Lake, she was thirsty for details.

MacPherson, whose Katepwa Lake cottage is downstream of Last Mountain Lake, wanted to know what the Quill Lakes Watershed Association was up to.

The coalition of Quill Lakes-area residents is frustrated with rising waters that are eroding thousands of acres of farmland. It wants to divert excess water — before it reaches Quill Lakes — down into Last Mountain Lake, both a popular fishing spot for walleye and home to North America's largest bird sanctuary.

But MacPherson, on the other hand, is concerned about saline from the diverted waters making it into Last Mountain Lake. She's not alone.

"It was a full crowd," said MacPherson of that August meeting. "And the community was really, really upset because there was no information about the plan."

Quills Lake

The locations of Quill Lakes relative to Last Mountain Lake. (Google Maps)

'It's very secretive'

Two months later — after Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment decided the divisive proposal doesn't need an environmental impact assessment (EIA) — little has changed.

"We are in the dark, we're begging for information. But they won't share it. It's very secretive," said MacPherson.

Her lack of access to information underscores how difficult it can be in Saskatchewan to learn in detail about land-use projects that — like the drainage proposal — require the Saskatchewan government's approval, but ultimately skip the environmental assessment stage.

The information vacuum is also making an already-tense situation even more difficult.

"On one side you have to sympathize with the folks whose lives and livelihoods have been so negatively impacted by the flooding at Quill Lakes," said Darrell Crabbe, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF).

"On the other side of the coin we have the downstream stakeholders who have grave concerns about possible negative effects."

What we know

The only officially-released information on the drainage project is a brief summary contained in the ministry's EIA determination, which was posted on the ministry's website in September, two weeks after the decision was made.

(Read the paper at the bottom of this story. Don't see it? Click here.)

Meanwhile, "everything that we learn has been through social media," said Michael Champion, the head of government and industry relations for Ducks Unlimited.

"We have yet to see any engineered drawings. We don't know what studies have been undertaken to ensure that it is freshwater that's being sent down and not salt water."

Concerned groups only found out last week that the association had moved past the EIA stage and begun seeking the permits needed to start work on the proposed 25-kilometre drainage diversion channel.

"Our phones have been ringing pretty hard here the last few days," said Crabbe. "The announcement on the [EIA] decision caught everyone in that stakeholder community a little flat footed."

A 'non-development'

CBC News, the SWF and Ducks Unlimited have all asked the ministry to share the association's operational plan. (CBC has also asked the association for it, but the group has not responded to multiple requests.)

The ministry has yet to share the plan. In the case of CBC News' request, it declined to release it. 

The reason? The drainage proposal is what the ministry calls a "non-development," a term used to describe projects that don't undergo an environmental assessment.

The Quill Lakes

There used to be two Quill Lakes, according to the Water Security Agency: Big Quill Lake and Little Quill Lake. But water levels have risen, forming one big lake and spurring drainage efforts. (Water Security Agency)

"With non-developments, we post the output [the EIA determination] and not the inputs (proposals or related documents), and the ministry responds to requests about determinations when received," according a ministry spokesperson.

The responses to requests for the drainage plan have been inconsistent, however.

Crabbe of SWF says the ministry told him "they're trying to get the clearance for us to have a look at it," while both CBC News and Ducks Unlimited have been told to ask the Quill Lakes Watershed Association for it.

"It's the first time we've experienced having to go through the level of requests to have a look," said Crabbe.

The lack of information "puts us in limbo," he said. "Obviously you can't support something that you're not aware of the full implications of."

Ministry wary of competitors

According to the ministry, the reason it refers detail-seekers back to the groups behind "non-developments" is because "the request is typically coming from a competitor."

"So our approach is to direct requests to the author/owner of the proposal and ask them to identify any business-sensitive information prior to releasing the proposal," a spokesperson to the ministry said.

"We may also refer requesters to the access to information process, as proposals in our possession may contain information requiring third-party notification prior to release."

Saskatchewan's approach, outlined in its Environmental Assessment Act, stands in contrast to other parts of Canada.

In the Northwest Territories, for example, people can go on a website covering much of the territory and view land use applications for everything from a new diamond mine to a proposal to hold smudging ceremonies on public land. No need to file an access to information request for a simple land use application.

Unanswered questions

What's compounding people's frustration about the drainage proposal is that more project information would have been publicly posted on the ministry's site if the proposal had undergone an EIA and thus become a — you guessed it — "development."

"We just did not see not having an EIA," said MacPherson. "We're blown away. Because that's where all that information comes, is in that process."

wet-fields-stmartin

High water levels account for thousands of acres of farmland flooding in the Quill Lakes area. (CBC)

Unanswered questions abound now. Chief among them: who is going to pay for the channel, and exactly what protections will be in place to ensure saline-rich water — or too much of it — doesn't reach Last Mountain Lake?

The ministry's EIA determination mentions "a mechanism to monitor and manage water quality discharged to downstream areas." But that's it.

The result? "People just automatically, with a lack of information, assume the worst," said Crabbe.

Wes Kotyk, the assistant deputy minister who signed off on the decision to move past the EIA process, said that the ministry might reconsider an environmental assessment if the scope of the project changed. 

He also cautioned that "this isn't the end of any approvals required" for the current project.

The association still needs an approval to construct and operate drainage works plus an aquatic habitat protection permit from the Water Security Agency, a Crown corporation.

wes kotyk

Wes Kotyk, an assistant deputy minister, cautions that the drainage project still needs approvals from the Water Security Agency. (Radio-Canada)

But the agency, like the ministry, initially directed CBC News to the association when asked about the mere status of the drainage project's permits.

"We do not have their information available publicly," a spokesperson said.

When pressed further, the agency said it is still reviewing the drainage project, adding that it could "take some time" to do so. 

If the approvals are granted, they will be posted to the agency's website. (You can subscribe to its RSS feeds here.)

Change ahead?

As for that elusive project proposal, Crabbe is confident it will eventually see the light of day.

"I'm certain the number of stakeholders that have voiced their concerns and haven't had any consultation will create a scenario where it just makes good sense and good business to be able to provide that to everybody," he said.

The ministry says "we do not typically receive many inquiries to release proposals."

But the department is considering a change to the system anyway.

"Given the public's increased interest in regulatory permissions, this is something we are looking at, not just for environmental assessment files, but for all permits, approvals, audit findings, and so forth."

MacPherson isn't hopeful, however.

"They say words, but there's no action," she said.

CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content