Sask. irrigation expansion questioned

The National Farmers Union wonders if a $4 billion irrigation expansion project for Saskatchewan is a good investment for the province’s farms.  |  Mickey Watkins photo

The greatest threat to Saskatchewan farms is climate change.

The United Nations projects a global average temperature increase of 3.2 C this century (Emissions Gap Report 2019), which would mean 6.4 C for Saskatchewan because warming is proceeding twice as fast at higher latitudes and in continental interiors. That much warming will be devastating if we allow it to happen.

A top priority for farmers must be to ensure that Canada and all nations rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic temperature increases.

Thus, we should ask: should the Saskatchewan and federal governments spend $4 billion on irrigation infrastructure?

A $4 billion investment could bring irrigation water to perhaps 500 farms over the next 50 years. It could help farmers irrigate perhaps 500,000 acres — slightly more than one percent of the province’s cropland. But no matter how much we spend on irrigation, more than 95 percent of Saskatchewan farmland will remain unirrigated — dryland acres, vulnerable to climate change and drought.

Alternatively, that same $4 billion could pay for rooftop and ground-mount solar-panel arrays for 100,000 farms and urban homes. Or it could be used to subsidize half the cost for 200,000 installations.

Seen this way, the choice is between protecting one percent of Saskatchewan cropland from drought or going a long way toward installing a low-emission, climate-compatible electricity system for the entire province.

Given how vulnerable farmers are to climate change, it seems in farmers’ interests to support broad-based emission reduction rather than irrigation for a tiny fraction of cropland.

Aside from the matter of opportunity cost (other things we could do with $4 billion), there are questions of feasibility. Will a multibillion-dollar expenditure really trigger a rapid expansion in irrigated acreage?

Saskatchewan has significant unused irrigation capacity now, especially around Lake Diefenbaker. This exists because farmers have been slow to invest in irrigation.

According to data from Saskatchewan’s Department of Agriculture, in the half-century since the completion of Lake Diefenbaker and associated canals and reservoirs, farmers added about 300,000 acres to the province’s irrigated area — an average of just 6,000 acres per year. And rates have been even lower in the past 20 years — around 2,700 acres per year.

At such rates, it would take decades to fully use irrigation potential from Lake Diefenbaker and other existing infrastructure.

With the 500,000-acre expansion under this latest project, it would take more than a century to fully use the added capacity, based on the irrigation expansion rates of recent decades. “Build it and they will come” may not be good policy.

There are more questions: will the project go over budget, as megaprojects often do? What about interest payments on the $4 billion in government debt? How will low-emission hydroelectricity production in Saskatchewan and Manitoba be affected? What about environmental issues such as downstream flows, effects on the Saskatchewan River Delta, or farmland salination? How much of this project is focused on providing water for potash mines or oil and gas production? Have farmers, communities, and First Nations been appropriately consulted?

The question is not whether irrigation expansion is good or bad, but rather how best to responsibly expand irrigation and how best to spend billions of dollars so that farmers and all citizens receive maximum benefit.

The best public policy may be to spend tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars to help farmers expand irrigation along existing reservoirs and canals and to spend the bulk of any available billions of dollars on rapid emissions reduction, climate stabilization, and the protection of all Saskatchewan farms and acres from the ravages of climate chaos.

Darrin Qualman is director of climate crisis policy and action with the National Farmers Union.

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