Sask’s big bet on water: A potential threat to a massive ecosystem
REGINA -- Hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese and swans migrate every year to the Saskatchewan River Delta, a massive ecosystem featuring an array of wildlife in the northern part of the province.
Within the delta, a maze of channels cut across low-lying forests and wetlands. Moose, lynx, wolf, black bear, and elk are all home here.
But the flow of water that provides life has diminished, and environmentalists say further reductions would pose a new threat. This time, the threat is the province’s $4 billion irrigation project.
“There will be impacts to this delta, but we don’t know what they are,” said Gord Vaadeland, the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Saskatchewan chapter.
Environmentalists worry the project will cause less water to flow through the river system and to the delta.
With less water, wildlife and their habitat have a harder time surviving.
“You take water out, and then in drought years you’re going to have some impact, but to accurately describe what those impacts would be is difficult,” Vaadeland said.
The Saskatchewan River Delta spans 10,000 km2, encompassing the northern part of the province and Manitoba. (CTV Regina)
Once complete, the irrigation project will see up to 690,000 acre-feet of water diverted from Lake Diefenbaker to supply farmers, industry and residents.
Some estimate the project could cause water levels to drop by five to 10 per cent at Lake Diefenbaker and in the South Saskatchewan River.
During droughts, water levels could drop further, potentially devastating the delta.
“Biodiversity could definitely be impacted because of less water in the channels,” said Jordan Ignatiuk, the executive director with Nature Saskatchewan.
”If some of them dry out, there is obviously less space for species to be spread out and thriving,” he said.
The Saskatchewan River Delta is an extremely important area for birds and various wildlife. (Submitted/Garth Lenz)
As well, Ignatiuk is concerned about wildlife near the irrigation sites.
He is worried native grasslands could be torn up to make way for new cropland, posing a risk to highly endangered species.
“There is so little native prairie left,” he said.
This is part two of a four-part series looking at the province’s $4 billion irrigation project.
A raptor bird stands on a farm fence near Davidson, Sask. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
Despite the concerns, provincial officials have suggested the project won’t affect the environment negatively.
“Environmentally, I think this is a good project and is key to climate change resiliency in this province,” said Lyle Stewart, the legislative secretary to the minister responsible for the Water Security Agency, during the announcement.
Stewart said the government has ensured the project only uses up to 77 per cent of the available water in Lake Diefenbaker.
He said the lake can provide a maximum of 900,000 acre-feet of water per year. The proposal would see up to 690,000 acre-feet of water used per year.
“This man-made lake was built to produce power and provide water security to the agriculture industry and to this city (Regina) and Moose Jaw,” said Premier Scott Moe, during the announcement.
“It’s a positive project to the environment, positive for soil … and positive for the economy of Saskatchewan,” he said.
Government spokesperson Matthew Glover said in an email that as the project advances, there will be more clarity on the environmental impacts.
As well, the government will have a better idea on environmental assessment requirements, he said.
Work is already underway on the project, with the province aiming to complete it by 2030. (CTV Regina)
But as the project moves forward, environmentalists say the government should do robust consultations.
“We’re here to try to find middle ground and ensure consultations are done in a genuine manner, and that the environmental assessment is done in a genuine manner,” Vaadeland said.
“If the government finds out there could be serious issues with the project, they need to make the proper adjustments.”
PAST ENVIRONMENTAL TROUBLES
The delta has already been degraded largely because of two upstream dams.
SaskPower’s nearby E.B. Campbell Dam, in particular, has caused issues.
It holds water in the summer, a time when heavy flows are needed to replenish the delta.
In the winter, the water is dumped through the dam because of high needs for electricity. The winter dumping poses a different set of issues for wildlife downstream.
A storm cloud brews near Lake Diefenbaker. The government's irrigation project could result in the lake's water levels dropping by five to 10 per cent. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
After years of complaints, the federal government ordered SaskPower to establish a minimum water flow throughout the year.
It has helped the situation somewhat, say environmentalists, but the dam still poses problems.
“The delta has really changed since we started messing with it by building dams and these sorts of things,” Vaadeland said.
PETITION FOR FEDS TO LOOK AT PROJECT
Nature Saskatchewan and CPAWS are looking to submit a petition to see the federal government conduct an environmental assessment.
Ignatiuk says the delta crosses borders and has broader impacts on downstream water flows.
“I don’t think enough of the studies have been done to look at what the impacts are down the road,” he said. “I think there are a lot of question marks in terms of what will happen.”
A map of the province's proposed phases of the irrigation project. (Submitted/Government of Saskatchewan)