Expand irrigation to boost economy: official

Employment benefits | ‘Irrigation development should be a no-brainer,’ says the province’s irrigation association chair

Saskatchewan’s recently released irrigation strategy is a good short-term document, says the chair of the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association.

However, Roger Pederson said it is missing provisions for the major infrastructure projects that will really advance the industry.

He said the strategy indicates the government will continue to develop irrigation but it emphasizes infill in existing districts.

That is necessary, he added, and comes at a lower price than new development.

“But for the province to really benefit from irrigation, we need to talk something bigger,” Pederson said.

Bigger would mean the Qu’Appelle South and Westside projects, which would cost billions but also provide jobs and economic development and alleviate problems associated with climate change.

The strategy says the government will continue to investigate the potential for the Qu’Appelle South project and develop a plan for future development of Westside.

However, there have already been several studies of these projects, along with economic studies indicating the widespread benefits to developing them.

“Someone has to decide,” Pederson said. “Every time we delay this a few years with more studies or more investigations, the cost goes up. We need to make a start and a commitment.”

The province could potentially irrigate another 500,000 acres out of Lake Diefenbaker on top of the 110,000 acres now irrigated.

That could lead to increased vegetable production as well as more irrigated grains and oilseeds.

Pederson said the cost is high, but it doesn’t all have to be paid in one year.

“Irrigation is a long-term project and we’re not talking $1 billion in Year 1. We’re talking $50 or $100 million a year for 10, 15, 20, 25 years. It’s not something that’s impossible to get to in the long term.”

He said he hopes the government is exploring financing options such as public-private partnerships and long-term debentures where people could invest in irrigation.

The strategy sets out goals for 2020 within four objectives of enhancing returns from existing irrigation, expanding irrigation, sustainable infrastructure and long-term growth.

There are also five main aims:

  • attract investment and immigra-tion from areas with higher land and water costs
  • develop 23,000 acres of infill capacity, with 10,000 acres irrigated
  • develop 10,000 acres of sustain-able, licensed irrigable land outside the irrigation districts
  • continue leading edge research and demonstration sites, in partnership with industry, with a view to innovation, competitive-ness, improved productivity and water use efficiency
  • increase yields, annual net production over rain-fed land and agriculture related employment

Some of the work is already underway.

For example, irrigation bridges and culverts are being repaired or re-placed under the theme of sustainable infrastructure, and the province is transferring operation and maintenance to the irrigation districts.

Pederson said the recent wet years might push irrigation from some minds, but most scientists are predicting long-term droughts.

“Irrigation development should be a no-brainer,” he said.