Diefenbaker project not worth the cost

Expansion to Saskatchewan's irrgation systems are not necessarily going to be a win for the province.  |  File photo

No one can dispute the many contributions that Ralph Goodale has made to public life, as an MP and federal cabinet minister.

His support for a project aimed at re-plumbing southern Saskatchewan at a cost of $3 billion or more, however, is a dubious proposition at best.

The South Saskatchewan River Project was conceived at a time when water running freely downstream was considered “waste water” and dams were known as water conservation structures.

Let’s be clear. The South Saskatchewan River is the only reliable source of fresh water in southern Saskatchewan. Lake Diefenbaker and its associated infrastructure provide sufficient precious water to meet all foreseeable water demands except those that might be associated with a considerable expansion of irrigated agriculture.

Such an expansion as described by Mr. Goodale fails on economic and environmental grounds, and is poor public policy.

In the 1960s when the South Saskatchewan River Project was constructed, the premise was development of irrigated agriculture. Hydropower was installed as almost an afterthought. Today SaskPower receives about $500 million in annual revenues from hydropower, some of that generated at Lake Diefenbaker and much of the rest based on the river regulation provided for downstream generating stations. Some fraction of Manitoba Hydro’s $1.5 billion in annual revenues originates with the South Saskatchewan River.

Today hydropower is the single most significant economic benefit of the South Saskatchewan project. Water diverted from the river is water that does not flow through turbines.

Mr. Goodale’s proposal would triple the irrigated agriculture acreage in the province. While proponents speak of vast multiplier effects, most irrigated land currently in place in Saskatchewan is used to grow grains, oilseeds and forage — dryland crops.

For the past 50 years, the anticipated value-added benefits have not met expectations. The existing irrigation headworks at Lake Diefenbaker are not being used to their full extent. It appears unseemly to build additional irrigation infrastructure rather than concentrate on developing the existing facilities.

From an environmental perspective, the proposal would be a significant water diversion. The effects on the donor waters and the receiving waters would have to be considered. Effects downstream of Lake Diefenbaker include the reduction in water quantity, water quality impacts and changes to the river ice regime. Most important, would be the impacts of reduced flow on the Saskatchewan River Delta (Cumberland Marshes) — the largest inland freshwater delta in North America.

The water receiving areas would have to consider matters such as wetland loss, riparian habitat, erosion, invasive species, nutrient /contaminant mobilization, loss of agricultural land to canals, and the effects on Qu’Appelle Valley communities, including First Nations.

From a public policy perspective, the benefits of the project for drought-proofing are moot. Such a project would receive junior water licences that would guarantee water about seven years in 10. Irrigators would not be able to draw a supply in times of drought.

Economists speak of the opportunity cost of money. If federal and provincial governments were to borrow $3 billion to spend on climate change mitigation in Saskatchewan, what other opportunities exist for spending that money?

There is no doubt that governments need to invest for the future, including significant investments in meeting the climate change crisis. They would be wise to disregard Mr. Goodale’s proposal in doing so.

R.A. Halliday is a Saskatoon consulting engineer and former director of Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre. He chairs the Partners for the Saskatchewan River Basin.

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