Sask’s big bet on water: Indigenous leaders express concerns
STANDING BUFFALO DAKOTA NATION -- Chief Roberta Soo-Oyewaste stands atop a hill overlooking the Qu’Appelle parkland and chain of lakes.
The area has been home to Indigenous peoples for centuries and, over time, the landscape has evolved.
Pollution from Regina and industry have taken their toll on the water, and Soo-Oyewaste worries a new government megaproject could harm it further.
“The lakes are sick and look like pea soup,” said Soo-Oyewaste, the chief of the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation. “There has been E. coli, so children can’t swim in the lake. If you fish, you can’t eat the fish. We advise our children not to swim.”
There are many beaches along the Qu'Appelle lakes. Their water quality has degraded overtime, according to research. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
Soo-Oyewaste, along with many First Nations leaders, are concerned the condition of the lakes could worsen if the province moves forward with its $4 billion irrigation project.
Once complete, it would see up to 690,000 acre-feet of water diverted from Lake Diefenbaker to supply farmers, industry and residents.
However, some estimate the project could cause water levels to drop at Lake Diefenbaker and in the South Saskatchewan River.
Water supplies at Lake Diefenbaker greatly affect the Lower Qu’Appelle River Watershed, which includes six major lakes that extend from Craven to the Manitoba border.
The water from Lake Diefenbaker is diverted to the Lower Qu’Appelle system. Any changes to this system, in which water levels would be lower, worry Indigenous leaders.
“If there is less water downstream, it will mean more degradation of the Qu’Appelle chain of lakes,” Soo-Oyewaste said. “We are already in poor conditions.”
The Lower Qu'Appelle River Watershed is a regional hub for recreation, industry and residential use. It's also a place for wildlife. Water levels in Lake Diefenbaker affect the watershed. (CTV Regina)
She said she wants to know which aquifers might be dug into because people rely on well water for drinking.
“How is this project going to affect that?” she said. “There is so much information they (the government) haven’t provided.”
This is part three of a four-part series looking at the province’s $4 billion irrigation project. Tomorrow CTV News Regina explores what the project means for water security in a warming climate.
Despite the concerns, Lyle Stewart, the legislative secretary to the minister responsible for the Water Security Agency, has said the impacts on the Qu’Appelle river system should be positive because there would be higher flow levels.
“It should allow it overtime to return to more normal conditions and restore water flow when the water flow is allowed to return to normal,” Stewart said, during the announcement.
An irrigation pivot over a field of canola near Outlook, Sask. The government says expanding irrigation will boost the provincial economy. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
He said the project is good environmentally, and would be key in addressing climate change resiliency.
However, the province hasn’t yet spelled out all of the environmental impacts. It intends to provide more details on that as the project moves forward.
Chief Matthew Todd Peigan of nearby Pasqua First Nation said more information on environmental impacts is needed.
He said the government hasn’t shown how the project will affect water levels in the Qu’Appelle system.
“To date, there is nothing in that plan that shows the benefits for the Lower Qu’Appelle,” Peigan said. “I’m against it until they prove to me how it will benefit, not financially but environmentally.”
NO CONSULTATION BEFORE ANNOUNCEMENT
Indigenous leaders don’t only have concerns about what the project means for water quality.
Many say the province hasn’t consulted with them about the plan, and that officials will need to meet with them face-to-face.
“They need to hear from the nations, from all of us that are going to be directly affected,” said Soo-Oyewaste. “We all represent our citizens on our nations, and our future generations.”
Saskatchewan's $4 billion irrigation project is expected to be completed in 10 years. Here is a breakdown of the spending. (CTV Regina)
Peigan said he and many others were surprised when the province announced the plan.
There are still many unanswered questions, he said.
“The province has not done their homework on how to address those questions,” he said. “Without us involved, without us knowing the process, and with the many questions we have, we need answers pertaining to environmental sustainability.”
Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations has said the province should have consulted First Nations before announcing the project.
During the announcement, Stewart said discussions with First Nations will begin immediately.
He said the government didn’t expect much pushback.
“There will be concerns and we will do our best to mitigate them,” he said. “We will have fulsome consultation with First Nations and all potential stakeholders and water users in southern Saskatchewan.”
Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation Chief Roberta Soo-Oyewaste, along with many Indigenous leaders, say there has been no consultation about the government's irrigation project. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
ALGAE BLOOMS CAUSING CONCERN
Water quality in some of the Qu’Appelle lakes have already been deteriorating.
A recent study by the University of Regina found there have been toxic levels of algae in some of the lakes.
The algae can be harmful to humans and pets.
Peter Leavitt, the Canada Research Chair with the University of Regina biology department, as well as other researchers, conducted the study after analyzing 26 years of water sample data.
Nitrogen pollution is one of the larger culprits in causing the blooms. Most of the nitrogen had come from Regina waste-water.
The city water treatment facility can now remove nitrogen, meaning the lakes could see fewer blooms in the future.
As well, as the climate changes, it’s expected water quality could worsen because of warmer temperatures and less water.
To mitigate that, municipalities will have to improve water treatment, said Kerri Finlay, an associate professor in biology at the University of Regina.
Nitrogen pollution has affected some lakes in the Qu'Appelle valley. The nitrogen has come from Regina waste water. The city's water treatment facility was recently upgraded to remove the nitrogen. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)
Leavitt and Finlay have previously said the irrigation project can help the province if done correctly.
“All the different communities and stakeholders need to be sufficiently engaged,” Finlay said. “It needs to be an adaptive approach, rather than deciding what happens and dealing with the aftermath later.
“The government really needs to work with different stakeholders and many communities.”
A map of the province's $4 billion irrigation project. (Submitted/Government of Saskatchewan)