The Saskatchewan government is moving ahead on a 10-year $4-billion project to more than double the province’s irrigation capacity.
The three-phase project will begin this year with spending of $22.5 million on preliminary engineering, soil testing and some construction.
The project is expected to add about 500,000 acres of irrigable land as well as enhance the water supply for the Moose Jaw-Regina corridor.
Lyle Stewart, former agriculture minister and legislative secretary for the Water Security Agency, said the time is right for the long-awaited Westside and Qu’Appelle South irrigation projects that farmers and proponents have called for.
“We weren’t quite there yet, but we are now,” he said, referring to when he was previously lobbied by irrigators.
Further consultation with the public and stakeholders, including First Nations, will be done as the project gets underway.
Stewart said work will begin on the Westside project, where much of the reservoir and canal had been constructed before the government changed in 1972 and the project was halted.
“Westside is partially built,” he said. “Our best bang for the buck we believe is to start there.”
Phase 1 will cost $500 million and include the rehabilitation and expansion in that area, resulting in about 80,000 irrigable acres.
The second and third phases will cost about $3.5 billion.
Further work on Westside in Phase 2 will add another 260,000 acres. The government expects that eventually irrigable land could be available near Macrorie, Milden, Zealandia, Delisle and Asquith.
Phase 3 will be the Qu’Appelle South project that adds 120,000 acres from Lake Diefenbaker to Tugaske, Eyebrow, Marquis and Buffalo Pound Lake, as well as the water supply to secure water for the Regina and Moose Jaw areas for the next 100 years or more, Stewart said.
He added that the project benefits are huge, beginning with securing water supplies at a time when North America is experiencing scarcities.
For example, he noted the Ogallala Aquifer in the central United States is being rapidly depleted, as are others.
“Alberta has used up the water allotment that they have,” he observed. “We were presented with this opportunity. Lake Diefenbaker was built to irrigate a million plus acres of ground.
“There’s never been a good enough reason for it to reach its potential but now this is a huge opportunity for Saskatchewan and a food security opportunity for Canada.”
Stewart said COVID-19 has shown that grocery store shelves can go empty and food security is a concern.
The projects also support climate resilience, he said.
The government hopes farmers will focus on higher value crops that will attract large food processors.
“We’ve had major food processors out here, trying to attract them, but they first of all told us we don’t have enough irrigated acres to guarantee them supply and they also told us with our soil type and long summer days and heat units up around Lake Diefenbaker we can grow everything they want,” Stewart said.
The government estimates its investment would increase the provincial Gross Domestic Product by $40 to $80 billion over the next 50 years. Construction itself will generate 25,000 person-years of employment.
And, governments stand to take in $10 to $15 billion worth of tax revenue over the next 50 years.
The province is looking to the federal government for investment as well.
Stewart added that water usage can be controversial at times.
“This is only 690,000 acre feet of water and there’s roughly a million available without changing any real operations along the Saskatchewan River around Lake Diefenbaker,” he said.
SaskPower may have to adjust its water use after the changes. It currently produces 186 megawatts of hydroelectricity each year at Gardiner Dam. Stewart said the corporation will still be able to generate power but will be included in further consultations.
“This is a project for our grandchildren, maybe my great-grandchildren,” he said.
“We have the greatest opportunity in North America I think, for sure Canada, to expand irrigated acres and provide food security.”