A local farmer was fighting to keep the province from taking his land this week in a legal battle that pits ducks against crops.
Andrew Lutz was one of five Sturgeon County farmers that appeared in St. Albert Provincial Court Monday for an expropriation hearing on Manawan Lake, which is about five kilometres north of Morinville.
Alberta Environment has applied to take about 108 hectares of land from those farmers as part of a plan to protect waterfowl habitat around the lake. The province wants the acres to protect thousands of migratory birds and to eliminate potential lawsuits from flooding
Lutz, 82, farms 70 of those hectares. “To me, this is just a land grab,” he said in an interview. “They’re taking away some of our best hay-land for duck swamp.”
Manawan Lake is a provincially significant lake that feeds into the Sturgeon River, said Michael Barr, who represented Ducks Unlimited at the hearing. The 1,100-hectare lake is an important staging, moulting and breeding wetland for waterfowl, and is home to one of western Canada’s largest colonies of Franklin’s gulls.
Ducks Unlimited, the province, and the Manawan Drainage District have worked together to manage the lake since about 1948, said Alberta Environment water management planner Abdi Siad-Omar, speaking in court. After the lake flooded in 1997 and all but vanished in 2000, the province created a long-term management plan to keep the lake at a stable level. This involved building a permanent weir in 2004. Now that the weir is built, some lands around the lake are at risk of flooding.
The province has now bought about 90 per cent of those lands and leased them back to the farmers, Siad-Omar said. Alberta Environment wants to secure the rest of the land to protect the lake and eliminate potential lawsuits from flooding.
Lutz said he was well aware of the fact that his lands can flood; that’s why he and his sons know not to harvest a wide swath of grass by the lake. Provincial officials have approached him many times to sell the land, but he’s refused, as it’s where he and his sons grow hay for their cows. “We can’t sell this. It’s our livelihood.”
Tom Rowand, a lawyer representing the Mahe family (which owns four of the affected hectares), argued in an interview that the province’s expropriation was unnecessary, excessive and unfair.
“They’re taking too much land,” he said. “I’m quite sure they could get around this expropriation by building a berm.” The government could also put a conservation easement on the land (where the province would pay the Mahes to protect the land), he adds, instead of charging them to use it.
Alberta Environment has used conservation easements and restricted covenants in the past, said Al Corbett of Alberta Environment, summarizing his testimony before the court. However, as the agency often ends up buying those lands outright due to legal complications with those agreements, it decided to move for expropriation in this case.
Hearing chair Rex Nielsen will submit a report on the case to the minister of environment in about a week. The minister will then decide whether to approve, deny, or revise the proposed expropriation. If the expropriation goes forward, the province would then arrange to compensate the affected families.
Lutz says he doesn’t want to see Manawan Lake go dry, but doesn’t want his sons to lose some of their best land either. “We’re not asking for any big dollars. We just want them to back off and leave us alone.”