SARM wants Sask. government to speed up Lake Diefenbaker irrigation expansion project

Once complete, the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project is expected to double the amount of irrigable land in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) wants to make sure it gets done.

Last week, SARM called on the provincial government to provide an update on the state of the irrigation expansion works.

“We want this project to go ahead as soon as possible,” said SARM president Ray Orb. “We want to make sure that the province is dedicated to finishing these projects, and doing that on a timely basis.”

When it was announced in the summer of 2020, the first phase of the project was considered “one of the most shovel ready irrigation projects in the province, with 90 per cent of the current canal already in place,” according to the government, and would begin “immediately, to stimulate the economy.”

The entire project was slated to take 10 years, and cost approximately $4 billion.

Nearly three years later, Orb said he is concerned about the cost of continued delays.

“The longer these projects draw out, the more money they’re going to cost,” he said. “Sometimes, if they’re dragged out too long, these kinds of projects become unaffordable. We don’t want that to happen.”

He also says producers in the area are depending on the expanded irrigation — and the need for reliable water for agriculture is only growing.

“We have some pressure in the province because of drought,” Orb said. “A lot of our areas last year were fairly dry, so the ranchers and farmers are feeling the tension.”

The current situation is frustratingly inefficient, he added.

“I think it would be helpful if we could use our irrigation to the maximum — keeping in mind that we have a lot of water coming through the Diefenbaker system that simply comes in and goes out, and we’re really not touching that. It’s a resource that, in effect, we’re not utilizing very well.”

Minister Responsible for the Water Security Agency Jeremy Cockrill spoke about the state of the irrigation expansion project at the opening of a new head office at the Gardiner Dam in November.

He said work on the dam — like many other large infrastructure projects — had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the government hopes to make some “pretty significant progress here in the next few years” and get back on track with the original plan.

This week, the government provided another update.

“The Lake Diefenbaker Irrigation Project is currently in the early planning phase, with focus on phase 1 which is the Westside Rehabilitation and Expansion Project,” the government said in a statement.

“Like many other large-scale projects, this is a highly complex multi-generational undertaking which takes time to plan, develop and construct. Additional geotechnical and hydrogeological engineering work and investigation needs to be done, along with further engagement with stakeholders.”

Orb said he wants rural residents to be able to access the water as soon as possible, so they can increase their crop diversity, farm profitability and long-term security.

“We totally understand going through that pandemic, but I think we need to get back to work on this now,” he said. “We hope that the province picks up the slack, because we have lost a couple of years.”

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix