In 1967, the Gardiner Dam on Saskatchewan’s Lake Diefenbaker was built with the potential to irrigate half a million acres. Today only 110,000 acres are irrigated and only two percent of available water is used. Study after study has indicated a huge boon for agriculture, industry and employment if the irrigation potential were to be reached.
While successive governments after 1973 did little to further the plan, the province appears to be seeing what those early visionaries saw.
“The thing people don’t realize is that we have plenty of water,” says agriculture minister, Lyle Stewart. “In Saskatchewan we don’t use enough of our water. And if we don’t, someone else will… we have plans for irrigation and are moving on them. These are huge projects and there is a lot of momentum on them.”
It’s these projects that will develop the critical mass necessary to attract processing and to provide for the growing needs of industry and cities. But the cost of these projects runs in the billions.
Stewart says an intergovernmental agency on irrigation is in place to design funding agreements. “They could be P3 agreements, or there are a number of federal, provincial, municipal arrangements. These are very complex deals.”
“Irrigation is a priority of mine as agriculture minister. I won’t likely see it (new infrastructure) in my time as minister. I probably won’t even see it started,” Stewart says. “But I will be working toward it.”
The first step, if one is taken, would probably be what is called the “Qu’Appelle South” project. It could include 130,000 acres and, as it’s situated near the Regina/Moose Jaw corridor, it would provide for potash mines in the region as well as the needs of the two growing cities. “It makes sense to do it all together,” Stewart says. “An irrigation district has been established and the province has funded a preliminary engineering study which indicates significant benefits for the province and the region.”
“Politically it is not such a difficult sell anymore,” Stewart says. “It was hard slogging in the early days. It started out with a bunch of producers who really started to push about 10 years ago.”
But if the province builds it, will they come? The farmers? The processors? Stewart believes they will. He points to the Alberta example. Expanded cattle feeding followed irrigation in that province and resulted in a huge packing industry. He says Alberta provides a good example to Saskatchewan of what is possible.
“It was fortunate they went ahead of us,” he pauses and laughs. “Except that they got the packing plants. But we have better options for management now than when Alberta started, and better technology for equipment on the farm.”
“Young producers out there are ready and willing to invest in infrastructure in their own areas. More and more, the potential of irrigation is understood in this province,” Stewart says. “Producers now are early adopters of technology and new ideas.”
And the processors? “We’ve been trying to attract them all along,” Stewart says. “They like the atmosphere in Saskatchewan and want to be here, but they need the critical mass… the irrigation has to be in place before that can happen.”
More from the Country Guide website: “Let’s make some food”
Dr. Chandra Madramootoo thinks that can’t happen too soon. He’s the dean of agriculture and environmental sciences at McGill University. A renowned voice in water management, he has worked on irrigation projects across Canada and around the world. He believes Saskatchewan has an enormous role to play in global food security. And he thinks the expansion of the province’s irrigation system requires no further study. Only action.
The land and water resources of countries like China and India are stretched as a result of population growth. “The challenge to feed their populations creates markets for us,” Madramootoo says. “There’s no way Saskatchewan cannot be involved. We are already producing lentils and peas for that market, and their demand for meat is growing as the middle class grows. If the province has good water management and gets the private sector working on this, Saskatchewan has a huge role to play.”
Madramootoo argues that one of the advantages Canada has, which extends to Saskatchewan, is a brand. While they can always be tweaked, overall food safety standards are good and if you add in environmental quality, Canada’s reputation in the world is good. We have the necessary institutions and regulatory pieces in place, he says, adding that Brazil, Argentina and the U.S. don’t even come close. “Saskatchewan can use all of this to its advantage.”
Of course the use of water for either agriculture or industry is not without controversy, and concern over supply and the environment are foremost in many minds. Madramootoo stresses that the whole irrigation process has to happen in an environmentally secure and safe way so that the resource is not degraded and technologies are used for conservation. “If we do a better job now, it is the price to pay for a clean, safe and secure food supply.”
And he is firm on one point. “The development of the natural resource industries cannot be at the expense of agriculture and food production.” In other words, use water to grow food before committing to potash and oil.
Lyle Stewart seems to agree. “I don’t remember a time when the importance of agriculture was ever such a priority,” he says. “Agriculture is our best chance for economic growth and will not be sacrificed for anything else.”