Lake Diefenbaker mega-project gets new look

Sask. MP Ralph Goodale would like to see a link built between the Saskatchewan reservoir and the Qu’Appelle River

It’s time to realize the full potential of a 50-year-old water project, said Ralph Goodale, the federal minister for public safety and emergency preparedness.

“We are utilizing only a tiny fraction of the South Saskatchewan River Project’s potential. More water evaporates from Lake Diefenbaker than actually gets used. And the original vision was never completed because from that reservoir, conduit systems were planned to reach far beyond the central core of the grain belt, including into the Qu’Appelle Valley, southeast,” said Goodale, the MP for Regina-Wascana, during the annual convention for the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities in Saskatoon last month.

Goodale told SARM delegates that a proper link between Lake Diefenbaker and the Qu’Appelle Valley would take a combined federal/provincial commitment of about $1.5 billion.

However, he said that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $180 billion the federal government has planned to invest in all public infrastructure projects across the country over the next decade.

“This is not a community-based water system or a community-based waste-water system. This would transform the management and the power of water right across the prairie basin,” he said.

The positive spinoffs of connecting Diefenbaker Lake and the Qu’Appelle Valley would be far-reaching and long-lasting with major increases in investment, employment and gross domestic product growth.

“Over the ensuing 40 years, the (private) study projects added private sector investment of $17 billion; $130 billion added to national GDP, with $80 billion in Saskatchewan; 426,000 person-years of employment; and about 100,000 acres of new irrigation capacity. What a quantum leap forward that would be,” he said.

In particular, recent new projects like the Protein Supercluster will eventually increase production levels and add 4.5 percent to the gross domestic product and 4,500 new jobs.

“In order to reach those production volumes, you will need a much more extensive development and management of water,” he said.

John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures at the University of Saskatchewan, agreed that now is the time to use the full potential of the Lake Diefenbaker project.

“What’s opened it up for a change in conversation is actually the change in the physical climate of the region, which has warmed up quite a bit along with the development of crops that can flourish in Saskatchewan that have higher value than the grains grown in the past,” he said.

However, while there are positives attributed to warming weather patterns, the Prairies are potentially facing more serious soil and water issues in the near future.

“Increasingly more severe and volatile weather patterns, resulting in more costly storms and floods, followed by droughts and wildfires, are extracting heavy tolls. Across the Prairies in recent years, the damages have added up to billions of dollars and the insurance industry says that debilitating pattern of losses is only expected to deepen and accelerate,” said Goodale.

In an effort to kick-start another big water project on the Prairies, the federal government has set aside funding in its recent budget.

“The budget put the specific commitment on the table. So it’s an idea that’s not just a theory anymore. We’re going to try to move forward on it,” said Goodale.

Western Economic Diversification will get up to $1 million this fiscal year “to develop a new strategy to sustainably manage water and land in the Prairies.”

“WD will be the convener to get everybody into the game and on the same page. And that’s really what its task will be for this coming year is to pull all the players together,” said Goodale.

“We need to get serious about it. It’s going to get more and more serious with every passing year because of climate change. So let’s convene everyone together and develop a plan for the more effective conservation and development of our water resources on the Prairies.”

The former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration was the federal regional agency that oversaw the building of the Saskatchewan River Project during the 1950s and 1960s, but with its dismantling in 2012, there is no agency equipped to fill the vacuum left to undertake a hydrology project of this magnitude.

“The capacity in the federal government to develop and design and to evaluate projects like this and then to manage river basins has almost completely disappeared over decades of cuts to agriculture, Environment Canada and other agencies. So some of the scientists involved are proposing that we have to develop a co-operative capacity to do this again. We’re calling it a Canada Water Security Centre,” said Pomeroy.

“I think two entities are needed. One is a water security centre to provide the informational support behind this and to mobilize knowledge that we need. Then we need some kind of a national water commission that would guide the decision-making on this and make sure that federal departments are doing their job and working properly with indigenous nations and provincial governments.”

Like the original project, which took 20 years of planning and argument and 10 years of construction, the proposed water project is also expected to have challenges.

To pull off a project of this magnitude, Goodale said, it will take the combined efforts of the federal, provincial and municipal governments, including indigenous communities, irrigation and watershed associations, academic and research organizations, producer groups and the private sector.

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