‘Big water’ vision may help in a crisis

It’s sometimes said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” meaning we need to learn from painful situations to avoid repeating past mistakes, and in rebuilding our lives after disaster has struck, we should build back better than what was there before.

To prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from claiming tens of thousands of lives, our governments have, collectively, put our economy and our normal way of life under severe restrictions.

But even before the pandemic, the world was already confronting another crisis — the existential threat posed by climate change.

On the Prairies, the main consequences of climate change are more extreme and costly cycles of damaging storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. And that raises a crucial question about how to better nurture and manage our most precious natural resource — clean, fresh water.

To help deal with both our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and our prairie vulnerability to the global climate crisis, a visionary idea from the 1930s may be an idea whose time has come — responding smartly to both crises at once.

That idea is simply this: complete the original plan for the South Saskatchewan River project by building conduits to carry precious water from Diefenbaker Lake across a much larger portion of the grainbelt — southeast into the Qu’Appelle Valley and west toward Rosetown.

What would that cost and what would we get in return?

Rough private sector estimates suggest a figure of $3 billion or more, which would be spread over several years and split between two levels of government. It’s a lot of money. Would the return on that investment make it worthwhile? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Building these large water canals over the next few years would create thousands of person-years of employment. The business spinoffs for suppliers and contractors would ripple across the Prairies. The initial capital outlay by governments could be expected to foster private sector investments five-times that large.

All this couldn’t come at a more opportune moment as Saskatchewan and Canada strive to recover from the COVID lockdown, which has been compounded by a global collapse in petroleum prices.

But beyond the timely stimulus that would flow from construction work, this big water project would represent a leap forward for the region’s agricultural economy for the longer term. Some 400,000 acres of farmland would become accessible for more irrigation, meaning more intensive, diversified and higher-value farming and ranching, accelerating the opportunities for more prairie-based processing and agricultural innovation.

Our enlarged productive capacity would enhance food security in Canada. The COVID crisis has driven home how vital that is.

It would also complement the large investments the federal government has already made in the Protein Industries Canada supercluster. Altogether, provincial gross domestic product could expand by as much as four percent.

By putting this large-scale water infrastructure in place, we would also be equipping ourselves to better manage water flows made more unpredictable and potentially damaging by climate change. We would be flood-proofing and drought-proofing a larger portion of the region, thus avoiding costly future damages and building a stronger foundation for more durable prosperity.

This would be a truly transformative, nation-building initiative, helping to lift both the regional and national economies out of their COVID coma, creating thousands of jobs and driving meaningful growth, both short-term and long-term, bolstering Canada’s food production and processing capabilities, making the region more secure and prosperous overall, and fighting the most serious prairie consequences of climate change.

Ralph Goodale was a Saskatchewan MP for 31 years, holding senior ministerial positions in three different governments, including agriculture, natural resources, House leader, public works, finance and public safety.

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