Sask. irrigation proposal defended

The Diefenbaker Project followed the 1930s droughts and crop failures when leaders from all political parties looked for long-term solutions.

The South Saskatchewan River Project (SSRP) created a water heart in the Palliser Triangle to distribute water, primarily for irrigation, but also industries, wildlife, municipalities, power generation, flood protection and farmsteads.

Dams would not have been built without irrigation and other multi-purpose benefits not been realized. Benefits were significant. The frequency of flooding from Saskatoon south was halved. Rural populations grew on the east side of Lake Diefenbaker while the west side without water declined.

A commentary recently written by R.A. Halliday (July 2 WP, page 11) said the potential of SSRP is not met when dryland crops are irrigated. These crops will always remain important in crop rotations necessary to maintain and build quality soils. Conveniently ignored are higher and more reliable irrigated crop yields with good returns on investments to land, seed, fertilizers, irrigation equipment. Farm debt falls. Claims for compensation from governments for crop insurance or drought losses do not occur.

Halliday suggests “hydropower was installed as almost an afterthought.” Not true.

In the original SSRP plans, the Gardiner and Qu’Appelle dams are owned by farmers to power irrigation pumps — hardly an afterthought.

Mr. Halliday cautions on the potential SaskPower reductions of $500 million in annual revenues from hydropower from its turbines at Lake Diefenbaker and other downstream locations citing: “Today Hydropower is the single most significant economic benefit of the South Saskatchewan Project.”

Evidence shows higher returns from irrigated water use than power generation. In 2006, University of Saskatchewan professor Suren Kulshreshtha estimated the long run value of water at $1/dam3 for hydro compared to between $10 and $62/dam3 for irrigation depending on crop mix and drought years. Rational decision-making supports irrigation over hydro.

Fortunately, this choice is unnecessary due to increasingly sophisticated irrigation water conservation practices. Irrigators water to plant growth needs. Initially, flood irrigation was a common practice, now replaced by more efficient centre and drop-centre pivots seen today. For high value vegetable and root crops, drip irrigation increasingly controls water applications. These considerations lead to conclusions that Halliday ignores:

  • Water conservation technologies have already reduced the irrigation water demands significantly.
  • Applying the new technologies and accurately measuring water use, extraction and return suggests there is ample water to expand irrigation around Lake Diefenbaker using less than 20 percent of available flows in extreme drought years and less than three percent in normal years.
  • Lake Diefenbaker already provides a reliable source of water where 3.3 percent evaporates, 3.4 percent is diverted and consumed and 93.2 percent flows downstream to Manitoba and into Hudson Bay.

Completing the two SSRP projects on the east and west side of the lake also make value-added investments more viable.

As well, irrigation investments around Lake Diefenbaker have saved many wetlands, particularly from droughts when fish and other species do not do well in dried up riverbeds and rotting marshes.

Finally, Halliday questions the cost of completing the Lake Diefenbaker project, ignoring benefits. In 2008, SIPA estimated the $3 billion investment would initially create an on-farm irrigation investment of $1 billion and a $35 billion growth in gross domestic product, a $13 billion increase in household incomes and a 326,000 person year growth in employment over a 40-year period.

Ralph Goodale (former federal agriculture minister and finance minister among others) was right to identify the $3 billion as a good investment in Saskatchewan’s future.

SIPA believes it is time to stop studying and get the final stage of the project underway.

Aaron Gray is chair of the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association.

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