Sask.’s Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project was announced 3 years ago. where is it now

As the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project moves forward, some hope the province will pick up the pace, while others believe better advice and research is needed.  (Don Somers/CBC - photo credit)

As the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project moves forward, some hope the province will pick up the pace, while others believe better advice and research is needed. (Don Somers/CBC – photo credit)

Nearly three years after the announcement of a major irrigation project in Saskatchewan, the head of a group representing rural communities says the provincial government should “go ahead” with it – while an organization representing First Nations says the province should have consulted those communities better should.

But where is the Lake Diefenbaker project now?

The $4 billion three-phase irrigation project was announced in July 2020, with a plan to eventually irrigate approximately 202,000 acres of land in southwest and western Saskatchewan with water from Lake Diefenbaker – increasing the amount of irrigable land in of the province doubled.

Saskatchewan reported that this irrigation accounted for 50 percent of the water consumed in the province in 2019.

The provincial government also said the project, originally scheduled for completion in about 10 years, would provide “building blocks for Saskatchewan’s regional economic development” and would boost gross domestic product between $40 billion and $80 billion over the next 50 years .

At the time, the Minister’s Legislative Secretary for the Water Safety Agency said the project would support crop diversification.

He also said negotiations with First Nations would begin “immediately or almost immediately.”

Patrick Boyle, a spokesman for the Water Security Agency — the provincial Crown Corporation responsible for water management in Saskatchewan — says the project is still in the preliminary investigation phase.

It has collected about 7,200 square kilometers of mapping data that examines water depth and topography, and assessed about 40,000 acres (just over 16,000 hectares) of soil, Boyle said.

Lake Diefenbaker Projects

Lake Diefenbaker Projects

“We’re talking about hundreds of kilometers of canals that would go through here, so there’s a lot of work and engineering data that needs to be gathered to understand this better,” he told CBC radio Blue sky host Garth matter.

The project is in preparation for environmental impact assessments and baseline studies for an assessment proposal are underway, Boyle said.

When asked if the project was on schedule, Boyle said more information and commitment is needed to move forward.

“It looks more… [at] this construction schedule. So we need to get to that point, and we’re working towards that goal right now,” he said, adding that an updated cost estimate also needs more information.

HEAR | What is the status of the mega irrigation project in Saskatchewan?

The president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities said while he supports the project, he wants the province to accelerate its pace.

“We’re just getting a little impatient,” said Ray Orb.

“We’re a little worried now about cost overruns… and that’s why we’re urging the government – let’s move on.”

Orb said he hopes the project will help diversify crop production and combat the drought that has dried up yields in recent years.

“We need new tools, not bigger old tools”

Murray Hidlebaugh, a farmer south of Saskatoon who uses irrigation, said he had been skeptical of the project since it was first announced.

He doubts the project’s costs outweigh its benefits and doubts the province will conduct an environmental impact assessment.

“As a farmer, I’m pretty suspicious of really great, new, big ideas. I find they always cost me money and don’t bring much benefit,” he said.

“I also find that the large-scale irrigation projects are a problem as they have significant negative impacts on both wetlands and biodiversity, and in most of our farming areas this is a problem.”

Mike Zartler/CBC

Mike Zartler/CBC

He said he has experience with arboriculture and irrigation and doesn’t think the project will deliver the drought-proofing and diversification benefits intended by the province.

The money could be better spent on initiatives like Osler and Corman Park’s Food Loop near Saskatoon, Hidlebaugh said.

It would only take a few thousand acres to feed all of Saskatchewan, he said, but government policy supports commodity exports over local food production.

“I support and applaud the provincial government’s slow move, but I think we should use the time and money to look for alternative measures,” Hidlebaugh said.

“We need new tools, not bigger old tools.”

John Pomeroy, Canadian research chair in water resources and director of the Center for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, said the South Saskatchewan River has enough water sources, mostly from mountain snow runoff, to power an irrigation project.

When asked if reviving wetlands in the province would be a better option, he said it’s not a question of which is better – but he believes both could help keep plants hydrated.

He also said that soil salinity is better understood today than it was decades ago, and areas prone to salt flooding need to be evaluated to see if they can be irrigated.

Environmental concerns: FSIN

Heather Bear, vice president of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said First Nations were not consulted on the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project when it was announced.

These communities are concerned about the environmental impact and particularly about water quality and quantity, she said.

“This province should be concerned about the Saskatchewan River Delta, the Cumberland House Delta, and the cumulative migratory impact of millions of birds coming into this region from across North America,” she said.

Boyle, of the Water Security Agency, said in an email that “First Nations and Métis engagement is a priority. The project is “in the early stages of engagement” and has had 567 separate “communications” with indigenous communities, he said.

But Bear said she doesn’t think First Nation-owned and operated farms would benefit from the project, although First Nation communities would be among the hardest-hit.

“There really needs to be a reset for this whole project.”


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