OUTLOOK -- Along a rural road near Outlook, farms that were once lined with trees are now clear and open.

By dismantling these shelterbelts, some farmers are signaling they’re ready to tap into new sources of water, an opportunity that could grow their revenues and the province’s.

“You can see all this land is prepared for irrigation,” said Doug Ball, the former chair of the Westside Irrigation Project, while driving past the farms.

Ball has been waiting a long time for this, a day where he would see the province commit to finally expanding irrigation in the Lake Diefenbaker area.

“It’s an economic generator, and it’s not just for farmers. It’s for the province,” he said.

Doug Ball Irrigation

Doug Ball, the former chair of the Westside Irrigation Project, stands by one of the old canals near Outlook. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

In early July, the government announced it wants to embark on a $4 billion project that would see Saskatchewan expand its irrigation network.

Once complete, 690,000 acre-feet of water could be diverted from Lake Diefenbaker to supply farmers, industry and residents.

Farmers would be able to irrigate nearly 500,000 acres. 

During the announcement, Premier Scott Moe estimated the project would generate $40 to $80 billion in increased GDP over the next 50 years.

The province is initially spending $22.5 million for the first phase and will be seeking additional funding from the federal government and industry for the remaining phases of the project.

“This is not only generational but transformational for the economy of this province,” said Lyle Stewart, the legislative secretary to the minister responsible for the Water Security Agency, during the announcement.

“This is probably the biggest thing we could have done,” he said.

Irrigation Sask. graphic spending

Saskatchewan's $4 billion irrigation project is expected to be completed in 10 years. Here is a breakdown of the spending. (CTV Regina)

Despite the economic spinoffs, there are concerns about how the irrigation system will affect the environment. Some First Nations leaders have expressed concerns, saying they haven’t been consulted.

This is part one of a four-part series looking at the province’s $4 billion irrigation project. Read part two: A potential threat to a massive ecosystem, part three: Indigenous leaders raise concerns and part four: A secure future?

But for many farmers in the area, the project could be an economic boost and help their communities thrive.

“It is an opportunity,” said Roger Pederson, who farms near Outlook and uses irrigation.

“It allows your kids and grandkids to maybe make a living in agriculture right at home if they want to,” said Pederson, who is also the president of the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association. 

Larry Lee, who farms in the area and is the chair of the Macrorie Irrigation District, said the project would help further develop Saskatchewan’s agriculture sector, similar to Alberta and Manitoba.

Canal irrigation project

Once the first phase of the Saskatchewan irrigation project is complete, this canal near Conquest will be filled with water. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

In southern Alberta, irrigation has helped spur the potato and sugar beet industries. For instance, potatoes are processed into french fries and the sugar beets are turned into sugar.

Irrigation has helped Alberta’s livestock industry. The technology lets producers grow more animal feed to support numerous feedlot operations.

“It’ll be so good for Saskatchewan,” Lee said. “It’ll add to the GDP on a steadily climbing basis, not like other industries where it spikes up and down.”

Moe has said the project could help develop Saskatchewan’s livestock industry.

It could allow farmers to grow various table crops, including potatoes, corn, beets, lettuce, cabbage and cucumbers.

Stewart said a major company was looking to set up in Saskatchewan, but because there was not enough supply through irrigation, it chose not to.

“That haunted me ever since,” Stewart said during the press conference. “It was a huge opportunity missed.”

Irrigation pivot potatoes

An irrigation pivot over a field of potatoes near Outlook. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

Despite the potential headwinds, some say the project faces many barriers.

For one, it’ll take political will from all levels of government and industry to see it fully materialize, Ball said.

The province is hoping Ottawa can help fund the project.

“It’s a large price tag, and it’s a tough sell,” Ball said. “They’re going to have to find the funding, and government is going to have to show willingness to initiate it.”

If Saskatchewan goes ahead, it’ll need to be done correctly, said Peter Leavitt, a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change and professor in biology at the University of Regina.

That includes proper consultation, and figuring out how to best use this extra water, he said.

“It’s about doing it right arms length before diving in,” Leavitt said. “Is the use of water toward just irrigation an optimal benefit to the province? When we look to the future, deciding where we should distribute that water is important.”

Lake Diefenbaker

Lake Diefenbaker in an energy, agricultural and recreation hub in Saskatchewan. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

However, some wonder whether the province will see much economic benefit.

For instance, they question if there will be losses in power generation from the Gardiner Dam if more water is being diverted from Lake Diefenbaker.

“When you take the water out you’re going to be generating less power,” said Saman Razavi, associate professor and principal investigator at the Global Institute for Water Security.

SaskPower has said any loss in power can be made up elsewhere.

Gardiner Dam

Some experts say the Gardiner Dam at Lake Diefenbaker will produce less power if the irrigation project moves forward. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

People also don’t want a repeat of something similar to the Spudco fiasco, which saw the government pour millions of dollars in the late 1990s into a floundering potato industry.

“This might be a great boost, but are the economic spinoffs going to be there?” said Jordan Ignatiuk, the executive director of Nature Saskatchewan.

“There are a lot of questions. Are farmers going to put in the investments themselves to develop irrigation, and what if there isn’t a market for these high value crops? If we are only going to put the water on our crops we grow now, then we haven’t gained any advantage at all,” he said.

But people in favour of the project say it offers more than just irrigation.

It would provide secure water sources for various communities, including Regina and Moose Jaw, and ensure a stable source of food in the future.

“It’s not just for farmers,” Ball said. “I think the benefits are substantial, and it’s going to take a while before we see these improvements.”

irrigation project map

A map of what Saskatchewan's proposed $4 billion irrigation project looks like. (Government of Saskatchewan/Supplied)