The bypass route runs through watershed land, home to diverse plants and animals, and a natural protection against flooding. The area’s wetlands, creeks and groundwater aquifers are part of the Wascana Creek watershed.
In March 2003, the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority (now the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency) produced a detailed protection plan for the Upper Qu’Appelle and Wascana Creek watersheds. The report, Getting to the Source, identified the ways infrastructure projects can contaminate and disturb watersheds.
The report called on the government to develop a communications strategy to spread the word through government ministries. Specifically, the highways ministry was asked to step up efforts to protect the land from salt seepage and to ensure waterways are maintained.
More than a decade later, Patrick Boyle, communications director for the water agency, is “not aware of any communications strategy from (their) end.”
However, a bypass planning report commissioned in 2013 by the highways and infrastructure ministry did address potential environmental concerns.
"All options will impact Chuka Creek and Wascana Creek." - Design study Report
“The water table is high in the study area, and all options will impact Chuka Creek and Wascana Creek,” stated the Southwest Regina Bypass Functional Design Study, prepared by MMM Group Ltd.
The consultants came up with a list of studies that should be done before construction. To begin with, the report recommended launching a geotechnical testing program to investigate soil and groundwater conditions along the route. This included assessing possible groundwater aquifers at construction locations, to ensure a solid footing for the structures.
On August 14, 2014, Brent Miller, director of asset planning for highways, sent letters to land owners along the bypass detailing the testing process that would take place on their land. To date, the ministry has provided no details on if the tests were done, and what the results were.
In a more detailed South Regina Bypass General Location Study, the MMM Group identified environmentally sensitive areas with recommendations for action. These included:
McKell Water Conservation Park
This 171 acre park is home to migratory birds such as pelicans and terns, and contains land that has never seen a plough. The study recommended there be no road construction or associated activities in proximity of the park during the season between May 1 and Oct. 15.
Burrowing owl habitat
The burrowing owl is ranked as "imperiled" by the Saskatchewan ministry of environment - meaning it faces extinction. Because there were eight sightings of burrowing owls in the bypass area, an owl count was recommended, along with a 500 metre construction buffer from places where the bird has been sighted (take the Map Tour for locations).
Chuka and Wascana Creeks
"Chuka Creek is a significant drainage course that can produce substantial flood lows," the consultants reported. The route will cross Chuka Creek north of Highway 33. Wascana Creek provides additional natural drainage and filtering for surrounding land, as well as plant and animal habitat.
The MMM report stated an aquatics assessment should be conducted for the creek areas. But when contacted, Colleen Fennig, general manager of the Wascana and Upper Qu’Appelle Watersheds Association Taking Responsibility, was unaware of any aquatic assessment being conducted.
There was a riparian health assessment done for the Wascana Creek watershed in 2013, but this is not the same an aquatic assessment. A riparian assessment looks at the land alongside creeks and wetlands, where plants and trees act as flood barriers and contaminant filters.
The land studied was in poor shape. “The overall health of the riparian areas is unhealthy according to assessment scores,” the researchers noted.
"The project...is not a development." - Ministry of the Environment
Given the potential to disturb already stressed ecologies, major infrastructure projects normally are required to carry out environmental impact assessments before commencing.
The bypass project was not held to this requirement.
In 2014, the ministry of highways and infrastructure submitted its technical proposal to the ministry of the environment for review. In a decision memo dated June 11, 2014, the environment ministry ruled:
“Based on the information presented in the Application, it is our determination that the project does not meet the criteria of section 2(d) of The Environmental Assessment Act (the Act) and, therefore is not a ‘development’ that is required to undergo and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).”
Thus one of Saskatchewan’s biggest infrastructure developments was officially declared to be not a development.
The memo went on to request just one study be done, a review of any rare plants in the area – a significantly narrower scope than a full environmental impact assessment, with no attention paid to the role commonplace plants play in the watershed health and flood control.
Monitoring process unclear - Chet Nefeld, Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan
The memo asked the ministry of highways to continue monitoring conditions and report any changes to their construction plans.
The ministry has not provided information online pertaining to how they are monitoring conditions and what, if any, studies have been conducted.
Chet Neufeld, executive director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan is unsure how the bypass project has been handling vegetation surveys and environmental monitoring.
If any environmental reviews are being conducted, the ministry of environment oversees and approves the work. However, the ministry itself doesn't do the initial studies or on-the-ground monitoring, so it’s hard to know when and if studies are being conducted, and by whom. The studies are carried out by environmental consultants. Their work is not public knowledge unless a study or report is released.
Draft report "has a number of deficiencies." - Jennifer Thompson, provincial heritage branch
The ministry of the environment also requested a heritage resource impact assessment before construction began. Several areas of untouched native prairie were identified in the MMM location study as potential archeological sites that must be researched before construction begins.
A study was completed in 2013, according to the provincial heritage conservation branch. Three years later, it has still not been released.
Jennifer Thompson, an archeologist for the branch, provided the following statement by email on March 31, 2016:
“At the moment, we have received a draft report on the project, which has a number of deficiencies. We are working with the consultant to ensure that these report deficiencies are addressed. Based on the findings, we don’t anticipate any major archaeological concerns with the project but further archaeological work may be required for a few areas of the bypass project.”
The deficiencies are unknown at this time.
A Freedom of Information request has been submitted to the ministry of environment for copies of environmental and heritage study results.
What the Act says
The ministry of the environment has declared the bypass project is not a development under the Environmental Assessment Act, and therefore is not required to do an impact assessment. Here’s how the Act defines a development:
(d) “development” means any project, operation or activity or any alteration or expansion of any project, operation or activity which is likely to:
(i) have an effect on any unique, rare or endangered feature of the environment;
(ii) substantially utilize any provincial resource and in so doing preempt the use, or potential use, of that resource for any other purpose;
(iii) cause the emission of any pollutants or create by-products, residual or waste products which require handling and disposal in a manner that is not regulated by any other Act or regulation;
(iv) cause widespread public concern because of potential environmental changes;
(v) involve a new technology that is concerned with resource utilization and that may induce significant environmental change; or
(vi) have a significant impact on the environment or necessitate a further development which is likely to have a significant impact on the environment;
Further the Act states that “environment” means not only land, water, animals and plants, but also “the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of man or a community.”