Expanding Irrigation in Saskatchewan

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), President Ray Orb expressed frustration with the lack of information coming from the government relating to the Lake Diefenbaker Irrigation Project that was announced by Premier Moe in July of 2020. The magnitude of the three phases of the project has many rural municipalities looking to the project to assist in making their farmland which has also seen the impacts of the severe drought that has raged for years in the American southwest, more viable. Project construction is expected to occur over the next 10 years in three projects at a cost estimated at $4 billion. With the announcement in 2020, Premier Scott Moe announced the first steps of what was called a “generational initiative” fulfilling the vision of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to ensure the prosperity of Saskatchewan people and irrigate up to 500,000 acres of land from Lake Diefenbaker.

“The Lake Diefenbaker irrigation expansion,” Orb stated, “could more than double the irrigated land in the province, not only opening new farmland to consistent water supplies, but also facilitating industrial and potash mining operations.”

The government has already allocated $45.5 million for preliminary engineering and environmental work on the first phase of the project and has said construction could start in 2023. At this time, most of the work beyond rehabilitating existing canals is in the conceptual phase, and “there are many unanswered questions,” says Orb.

SARM’s Division 5 runs basically up the middle of the province in the north central area equidistance on either side of the South Saskatchewan River. The South Saskatchewan Irrigation District #1, the biggest irrigation district in the province, features prominently in this division. The extensive network of canals that are already in place in this district makes it the obvious choice for the initial phase of the project. The estimated cost of $500 million for Phase 1, will include the rehabilitation of the existing Westside irrigation canal system which will increase the amount of irrigable land by 80,000 acres in the area. A drive south from Delisle, SK will show the canal system that has sat empty of water from the time it was initially excavated and left producers wondering if they would ever see water from the project. The second phase will see new canals built, adding an additional 260,000 acres of irrigable land. Once fully built and developed, the project will eventually see land made available for irrigation near Macrorie, Milden, Zealandia, and as far north as Delisle and Asquith fulfilling an original promise behind the creation of Lake Diefenbaker.

Environmental groups along with other learned individuals such as Peter Leavitt, a biology professor and director of the Institute of Environmental Change and Society at the University of Regina feel an in-depth environmental impact assessment needs to be completed before going forward. “The water extraction itself could potentially trigger an impact assessment because you’re kicking out over 600 million cubic metres of water each year out of the Saskatchewan River. So you’re preventing it from going into the confluence with the North Saskatchewan River, and downstream,” says Leavitt. “And that’s important because that Saskatchewan River — that combined North and South Saskatchewan River — flows directly into the Saskatchewan Delta, which is one of the largest inland water wetland complexes in the world”, and that delta contains vast peatlands which are a key carbon sink and habitat for the at-risk woodland caribou.

Trevor Herriott, an author and advocate for grasslands in Saskatchewan, says he has many concerns about the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project, but one of them is that the government and proponents of development are saying that one of the benefits is they will be able to double irrigated acres, and that probably means that some of the native grassland that’s along Lake Diefenbaker and the South Saskatchewan River would be converted to grow hay or grain even though it is not optimum land for this use. Environment Canada also raised concerns about that loss in the impact analysis, noting conversion of that land is “likely to have a large detrimental effect on many already declining grassland bird populations, including migratory birds.”

So why is this a concern for people in our readership area? First and foremost, nothing happens in a vacuum. Nature is a balance and when one part of an ecosystem is altered other parts change in response. What happens to the river upstream, impacts all of us along its shores downstream.

South of the border, the American southwest is continuing to cope with a drought the magnitude they have never seen before and it is pitting State against State and urban against rural. The drought began its grip in 2000 and has resulted in groundwater drying up and governments restricting water usage in a goal to save the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the U.S. southwest, a key source of drinking water, power production, and crop irrigation. Recent estimates predict that Lake Mead which empties through the Hoover Dam, will reach Dead Pool level by 2025. Dead pool is what happens if water levels drop so low that nothing flows past the Dam, collapsing the distribution system and leaving farms and homes parched in the southwest States. No one living in states such as Arizona, Utah, Colorado, California, and Nevada 50 years ago, believed the Colorado River would ever be unable to supply their needs. The twenty-plus years of drought have brought the mighty Hoover Dam to its knees.

It's a story we'll be hearing more often, in more places, said Jennifer Simpson who manages property in Arizona for snowbirds. "It's a bigger story. This is just the beginning. I think we're just the guinea pig of what could happen. … This is not a poor community. If it could happen to us, it could happen to everybody."

Proponents of the Saskatchewan Party’s Lake Diefenbaker Irrigation Project speak only of the potential economic growth while brushing aside concerns about the impact to communities downstream who depend on the South Saskatchewan River. They argue that the Lake was designed with irrigation in mind and it holds enough water to support the proposed irrigation increases while continuing to send adequate water downstream. The Saskatchewan River system starts in the mountains and is fed by snowmelt and the glacier melt, but how sustainable will the lake and river system be in the future? Snowfall in the upper mountain ranges has not increased to facilitate glacier rebuilding. Anyone who has paid attention to the shrinking size of the glaciers will know where that concern stems from. Some experts estimate the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Columbia Icefield will lose about 85 percent of its current mass by 2100. The degradation and eventual loss of this glacier could have significant impacts on people in Alberta and Saskatchewan who are accustomed to using the river’s water for irrigation and domestic water usage. As climate change challenges farmers to develop new ways to continue to feed the world, building infrastructure to exploit a resource that will be in danger within our children’s lifetime, may be just burdening them with more problems that we have created.

Irrigation is often promoted as encouraging agricultural diversity, supporting the development of value-added industries, business growth and development and increased employment opportunities, but it is also expensive. From purchasing the system to maintaining it and paying for the water that flows through it, there will be some farmers who will decide that it is not a financially feasible option. On the negative side it also encourages the destruction of wildlife habitat so that the system can water the entire designated area without impediment, and it drives up land costs pushing small producers out of the running when it comes to land purchases. Irrigation is not the magical panacea that will bring wealth and stability to rural municipalities.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder