Sask’s big bet on water: A secure future?
REGINA -- The Saskatchewan prairies are expected to become drier as the climate changes, potentially spelling trouble for people, industry and wildlife that rely on the province’s water.
With these bleak predictions in mind, the province is hoping its new $4 billion irrigation project provides some security for decades to come.
It would ensure stable sources of water for people living in the Regina region, according to the government, and let industry expand, helping future-proof the economy.
“We are talking this generational project to move forward with long-term water security, attracting a next round of investment, however significant that may be,” said Premier Scott Moe during the announcement.
Buffalo Pound Lake in Saskatchewan provides drinking water to Regina and Moose Jaw. Expanding the irrigation would ensure water security for years to come, says the government. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
But the potential economic spinoffs and water security could come at a cost.
Not only would the province be spending millions, or potentially billions, but some worry the project could be detrimental for ecosystems and some downstream communities.
“Maybe down the line the water is secure enough for both irrigation and downstream uses, but I think there is a lot of question marks around it,” said Jordan Ignatiuk, the executive director with Nature Saskatchewan.
“What are the impacts on water because of climate change? I don’t think enough studies have been done to look at the impacts down the road,” he said.
This is the final part of a series looking at the province’s $4 billion irrigation project.
A pelican flies over Buffalo Pound Lake in Saskatchewan. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
Despite the concerns, the government has suggested the project will be key in addressing climate change, given extended droughts are the province’s main threat.
Moe said it would provide water security to the agriculture industry and people living in Regina and Moose Jaw, which rely on Buffalo Pound Lake for drinking water.
“It provides us with a real opportunity,” he said. “It’s a positive project to the environment, positive for soil … and positive for the economy of Saskatchewan.”
Once complete, 690,000 acre-feet of water could be diverted from Lake Diefenbaker. All of that extra water could be used for multiple purposes, which include agriculture and drinking water.
Farming organizations have expressed support for the plan, and so have some researchers, though they say it needs to be done correctly.
Saskatchewan's $4 billion irrigation project is expected to be completed in 10 years. Here is a breakdown of the spending. (CTV Regina)
Peter Leavitt, a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change and professor in biology at the University of Regina, said the province needs to take consultation seriously.
He said it’s important for the province to figure out how it should best use the water.
“It’s about planning for the future,” he said. “Let’s not just do this as business as usual. It’s $4 billion in infrastructure. We need to do this fully.”
Leavitt said the project would help the province buffer against drought because people could continue to access water even if some of it has dried up.
When people are able to access water, they stay in the province, he said.
“By provisioning the cities, we assure that people can stay in Saskatchewan rather than leave the province, which happened in the 1930s,” he said.
“Most of the provincial GDP is generated in urban centres, so if you are trying to protect the overall economy from drought, this is where your best return on investment is.”
The Gardiner Dam at Lake Diefenbaker is key in producing electricity for southern Saskatchewan. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
BEST USE OF WATER
Many people are debating how the province should best use this extra water should the government move forward with the project.
The government has its eye on industry, especially agriculture.
During the announcement, former Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said farmers would be able to grow various vegetable crops, including potatoes, corn, beets, lettuce, cabbage and cucumbers.
These high value crops would boost revenues for the province and farmers.
“The growth in value of crops per acre is exponential,” Moe said. “It’s exponential in jobs in value-added industry.”
As well, potash mines would be able to use the water. Solution mines require water to extract potash, and most of their water comes from Lake Diefenbaker.
An irrigation pivot waters a field of potatoes near Outlook, Sask. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
Others, however, believe people should have priority over the water, rather than industry.
They also don’t want the environment to suffer as a result of industry using more water.
“The water needs to be for people’s use first. After that, irrigation comes in,” Ignatiuk said.
A FUTURE WITH FOOD
More people will need food as the global population grows.
As well, land in some regions may become less fertile as the climate changes.
Many see the prairies becoming a food production powerhouse to meet these demands.
The government envisions the irrigation project as a way to help make that happen. As well, it ensures Canada has a stable food supply in the future.
“There would be a direct benefit to local economics and it supports long-term food security goals in Saskatchewan and across Canada, and around the globe,” Moe said.
Potatoes grow in a field near Outlook, Sask. The government's irrigation project could see more acres dedicated to potatoes. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
However, some wonder if farmers will actually grow high-value crops.
If they stick with growing typical grains and oilseeds, there may be no added benefit, they say.
“Will the irrigation actually be used?” said Ignatiuk. “It could be a lot of expense for no further use.”
Leavitt said farming innovation will be needed to justify the project’s large price tag.
Darrel Crabbe, the executive director with the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, said the project could help enhance fisheries in the province.
He said fisheries are usually in mind when governments develop irrigation projects.
“We see a lot of pressure from Alberta and all around the world to come and fish in Saskatchewan, so we have to take some positive steps now to have quality fishing in years to come,” he said.
Darrel Crabbe, the executive director with the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, rides a boat on Buffalo Pound Lake. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
A map of what Saskatchewan's proposed $4 billion irrigation project looks like. (Government of Saskatchewan/Supplied)