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Saskatchewan has much of what the agri-food world urgently needs: unencumbered vistas for crops and livestock, a warm (and getting warmer) growing season and relatively stable politics for development.


What’s missing though is a steady source of water.


But that could all change if the province committed itself to a $4 billion project to open up irrigation there, says a new report from the Ottawa-based Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI).


According to the 23-page report, “Irrigation, Saskatchewan’s Unfulfilled Dream,” the time is ripe for Saskatchewan to take another look at further developing the controversial 500,000-acre Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project, located in the semi-arid region of the Palliser Triangle. Lake Diefenbaker, a huge 225-kiometre long reservoir, was created by the Gardiner Dam project on the South Saskatchewan River. The dam was built between 1959 and 1967. Irrigation was to be one of its key features.


But as the report notes, in 1973, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Agriculture killed the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation development project because he felt farmers in the area were not adopting irrigation technology quickly enough. And not all farmers supported it: those who had long grown conventional crops such as wheat considered it “a costly move that required substantial investment,” according to the report.


With the farming community split, the detractors won. Today, only 104,000 acres of Saskatchewan farmland are irrigated. That pales in comparison to its neighbour Alberta, with 1.5 million acres irrigated.


And although Saskatchewan feeds the world with commodities such as wheat and canola, the province imports 95 per cent of its fresh vegetables. Proponents say that leaves ample room to develop the domestic market, prompting calls to increase the outflow for irrigation by the equivalent of five percent on the lake’s inflow.


A grower cited in the report agrees with the plan. Spring Creek Garden, the husband-and-wife team Dan and Chelsea Elardson, use irrigation to produce 400 acres of broccoli, pumpkins, carrots, lettuce and Brussels sprouts, about 35 kilometres outside of Outlook. They sell their fresh vegetables to major chains such as Loblaws, Sobeys and Federated Co-operatives Limited.


“Without irrigation,” says Dan Elardson, “it would be impossible.” 


Other believers featured in the CAPI report include Jazeem Whazab, an agronomist and researcher at the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre. Whazab, a horticultural production specialist, believes that leafy vegetables such as chard and bok choy, as well as mixed vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, onions and peppers could be grown in the region.


He says the volumes produced under irrigation would likely attract frozen vegetable processing companies to the region and allow Saskatchewan to compete with Québec and Ontario. He admits Saskatchewan wouldn’t fully replace California. But, he says, climate change has already extended the province’s growing season by 10 days, from 110 to 120 days.


“So, we could make Canadians less dependent on California,” says. “But we will still face the challenges of good water management and finding enough workers.”


Management is indeed a challenge. Lake Diefenbaker provides water to 60 per cent of the province’s population, for cities such as Regina and Saskatoon. Industries such as potash mining, tourism and recreation also count on it.


And on the pecking order, that can leave Saskatchewan growers on the outside looking in. As the CAPI report notes, the flow of water from the South Saskatchewan River is subject to an interprovincial sharing agreement between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the federal government. Alberta must allow half of its water to flow to Saskatchewan. In turn, Saskatchewan must allow half of its water to flow to Manitoba.


Good relations have prevailed among provinces, says the report. But, it adds, increasingly severe droughts that put pressure on water reservoirs could risk “souring relations.” So could the perception of draining vital drinking water sources.


But the report says development can’t wait and wants the federal government to ante up.


“Given the urgency of climate action and the geopolitical context, how long can Ottawa afford to put off doing its part in funding [more irrigation]?” the report asks. “Because the price we’ll have to pay to remedy the state of the world is only getting higher.”



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Submitted by Owen Roberts on 26 October 2023