‘Transformational’ irrigation project praised by producers

Irrigators across Saskatchewan were all smiles after last week’s announcement of two major expansion projects out of Lake Diefenbaker.

“I’m so happy today that it’s finally happening,” said Larry Lee, chair of the Macrorie Irrigation District and a long-time irrigator.

Even though he won’t personally benefit from the expansion, he said so many other farmers will.

“Today is a good day for everybody, and for Saskatchewan,” said Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association chair Aaron Gray.

The 500,000-acre Westside and Qu’Appelle South projects announced July 2 were part of the lake’s original plan, and could spark more value-added processing, food security, drought and flood proofing, and water security for Regina, Moose Jaw and southern Saskatchewan.

The $4-billion, 10-year, three-phase plan unveiled by premier Scott Moe and former agriculture minister Lyle Stewart begins this year with a $22.5-million investment in preliminary work, including soil testing and some construction on the Westside project that was nearly finished almost 50 years ago.

The full project hinges on obtaining some federal funding and possibly private sector investment.

Roger Pederson, Outlook, Sask., farmer and SIPA president, getting Ottawa to kick in shouldn’t be an issue.

“The feds have always said the province has to lead,” he said. “I have no doubt there’ll be no problem securing federal funding.”

Former federal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale has championed further Lake Diefenbaker development. He said the return on investment for both the province and country is huge.

“This is truly transformational change of nation-building calibre,” he said.

Lee said the projects will keep future Saskatchewan generations at home.

“I look at this as, water is the new oil of Saskatchewan,” he said.

He and others hope processors will move in.

Joel Vander Scaaf, also a SIPA past-president and potato grower at Outlook, said a critical mass of irrigated acres could attract a potato processor.

“Saskatchewan is kind of a sleeper when it comes to potatoes, especially creamer potatoes,” he said.

The acreage devoted to potatoes and other vegetables has just been too small to develop a significant market presence.

Vander Scaaf said a proper water management strategy offers huge opportunities for field crops, greenhouses, other industry, tourism and recreation.

“It’s the circulatory system for our most precious resource,” he said.

Adding irrigation and vegetables to crop rotations is costly.

Lee said farmer investment will match the billions put into the conveyance system and reservoirs. Farmers will require a new line of equipment for some crops, more inputs and storage, he said.

Gray said the rule of thumb for the on-farm irrigation infrastructure is about $160,000 per quarter section. There are programs available through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership to help bring power and water to farms. He said bringing power to districts makes it more cost effective because it is shared on multiple quarters.

The return on investment for on-farm investment is about 12 years.

Lee said it’s important to think of the entire project as an investment, not an expenditure, because the benefits will be so far-reaching. Reservoirs can be fishing and boating sites with cabins and even golf courses, he said.

The Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association said the livestock industry can grow, too, with assured water and feed supply.

Pederson said he understands why some worry about water quality and supply but with more than nine million acre feet in Lake Diefenbaker and only 690,000 acre feet required by the expansion there is enough available.

Provincial environment minister Dustin Duncan said the project will go through the usual environmental process to determine where it fits.

“The ministry would have to make a determination of whether or not each phase of the expansion reaches the level of a development in order to trigger an environmental assessment,” he said. “At this point it’s too early.”

SaskPower has done some assessment of how flows would be affected and in turn affect hydroelectric dams at Gardiner Dam and further downstream.

“Right now what SaskPower’s analysis is saying is that certainly in the early years of operations this expansion of irrigation doesn’t affect the flows,” Duncan said.

Irrigation currently uses less than four percent of the lake’s flow.

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