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Perspectives on Diefenbaker Lake irrigation expansion project

Ron Walter shares his thoughts on the expansion project
Bizworld by Ron Walter

The most unfortunate aspect of the province’s announcement of irrigation expansion from Diefenbaker Lake was the timing.

Farmers in the Moose Jaw region who fought for the first economic assessment 20 years ago will be retired or dead by the time the project comes to their district.

Even more unfortunate timing arises from the decades of delay in building out irrigation after the Gardiner Dam was opened in 1967. Significant expansion quit in 1973.

Had various governments of all levels and all political stripes continued investing in irrigation, the province would have enjoyed the economic and social benefits of irrigation for 30 years.

The cost of expansion would have been way less than the $1.15 billion now estimated.

The provincial New Democratic government of the 1970s and early 1980s wasn’t that keen on more irrigation.

The Devine government of the 1980s was in favour of expansion but with annual budget deficits piling up had no money to invest.

In the 1990s both federal and provincial governments were too busy slaying the deficit dragons to invest in irrigation projects.

The inference here is that longstanding deficit positions will one day prevent beneficial projects and programs from being developed.

Now that the rural dryland populations have been decimated, fewer people will benefit from the 500,000 acres being turned into irrigated farmland during the next 10 years.

Instead of enjoying better crops and new varieties, farmers are waiting four years for the first phase of the 90,000 acre expansion.

Local farmers will have to wait at least 10 years for development to arrive here.

Opposition to irrigation expansion is growing, based largely on climate change issues.

The reliability of steady water flows from melting snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains to keep water levels high is used as an argument against the expansion.

Critics of the irrigation expansion warn that those water flows will be lower and lower making the irrigation development a drain on water supplies and a terrible investment.

That argument hinges on what if the worst happens?

The provincial government’s case for the project cites extra billions of income provincially and thousands of jobs by food processing plants and livestock operations.

If the water flows slow to the point where the irrigation water withdrawal endangers levels the water flowing into irrigation canals can be reduced or turned off.

The opposition hasn’t considered new agricultural technologies that can reduce irrigation water consumption considerably.

The most significant argument opposing the expansion is the impact of potential reduced water flow to the Cumberland Delta, a large area between the junction of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers running east.

The delta is vital to the millions of waterfowl and other delta wildlife that live in this boggy region.

A number of First Nations people make their living by hunting and trapping in the delta.

Environmental measures need to ensure continued health of the delta ecosystem.

Ron Walter can be reached at   

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.


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