In July 2020, the Saskatchewan government announced it wanted to spend $4 billion on the largest infrastructure project in the province’s history, much to the surprise of First Nations.
The Lake Diefenbaker irrigation expansion would more than double the irrigable land in the province, opening new farmland to consistent water supplies, but also facilitating industrial and potash mining operations.
The Water Security Agency, the provincial body responsible for both championing the project and regulating water use in Saskatchewan, says the project will help mitigate drought and flooding. The government, in its turn, touts its many economic benefits.
Critics say the potential environmental impacts of the project are significant and more work needs to be done prior to any major developments. First Nations say consultation is required and have concerns about ecological and cultural impacts.
So what exactly is happening and what does the government want to achieve?
Lake Diefenbaker, at 225 kilometres long, is the largest lake in southern Saskatchewan, created by dams crossing the Qu’Appelle and South Saskatchewan rivers. It officially opened in 1967 and provides water for irrigation, hydroelectric power and municipal wells.
When the reservoir was first constructed, irrigation canals were planned to spread from its northwestern edge, reaching approximately 120 kilometres to the north. Work on that project continued until 1973, but was eventually abandoned with a change in government.
Now the province wants to refurbish the forgotten canals in the first phase of its expansion project. The second phase will see new canals built, fulfilling the original promise of Lake Diefenbaker to send its water as far north as Asquith, directly to the west of Saskatoon.
A third, and final, phase will see new irrigation works built to deliver water south and east of the lake, with possible flows into Buffalo Pound Lake, which supplies water to Regina and Moose Jaw.
The first phase to refurbish the existing infrastructure is estimated to cost $500 million, while the remaining two phases are together estimated at $3.5 billion.
The province says phase one will open 80,000 new acres of land to irrigation, the second will add 260,00 acres and the third will add 120,000 acres. In total, just shy of 500,000 new acres of irrigated land could be added.
In addition to the newly irrigated farmland, the third phase is anticipated to fuel industrial expansion near Saskatoon through increased access to water, and could help establish more potash mines.
The government has already allocated $45.5 million for preliminary engineering and environmental work on the first phase of the project, and has said construction could start in 2023. At this time, most of the work beyond rehabilitating existing canals is in the conceptual phase, and there are many unanswered questions.
The government and the Water Security Agency say this work is required to enable drought and flood protection, and to significantly increase agricultural production in a province where farming is a significant economic and political force.
When the project was announced in 2020, the government zeroed in on its economic benefits, saying it could increase provincial GDP between $40 and $80 billion over the next 50 years and create 2,500 jobs per year during the anticipated decade of construction.
The canals and planned reservoirs along the route are intended to help manage floodwater in times of plenty, while also supplying water for thirsty crops in drier times. Details on those reservoirs, including their size and location have not been determined.
But there are plenty of concerns.
“I have enough professional experience with nearly 30 years research in the area, on the aquatic systems, to have some misgivings about what has been stated about the project and the benefits,” Peter Leavitt, a biology professor and director of the Institute of Environmental Change and Society at the University of Regina, says.
“The downside is under-analyzed.”
Leavitt wrote to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to argue for a federal review of the project, but says he’s not necessarily opposed to it. He just wants to see more data and be assured of a careful examination of the costs and benefits before the project moves ahead.
He says one of the primary concerns is moving water around for agricultural purposes, which tends to change the composition of what ends up back in rivers and lakes. Added nutrients, particularly from fertilizer, for example, degrade water quality and can lead to toxic algal blooms.
That build-up of nutrients could be a concern as water flows through channels and into Buffalo Pound Lake and then into the Qu’Appelle lakes system, which is already struggling with poor water quality and frequent algal blooms.
“The water extraction itself could potentially trigger an impact assessment because you’re kicking out over 600 million cubic metres of water each year out of the Saskatchewan River. So you’re preventing it from going into the confluence with the North Saskatchewan River, and downstream,” Leavitt says.
“And that’s important because that Saskatchewan River — that combined North and South Saskatchewan River — flows directly into the Saskatchewan Delta, which is one of the largest inland water wetland complexes in the world.”
The delta contains vast peatlands, a key carbon sink.
Environment Canada, in its contribution to an analysis conducted by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, highlighted the potential impact to the delta and noted its importance for Indigenous communities. The Cumberland House Cree Nation, for one, is proposing to establish an ecological reserve in the area.
Beyond impacts on water and wetlands, the irrigation system will also open up new lands to crop farming, destroying native grasslands. One of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, grasslands provide habitat for endangered species including burrowing owls, along with migratory birds, foxes and pollinators. They also store carbon, and control flooding by naturally filtering water.
Trevor Herriott, an author and advocate for grasslands in Saskatchewan, says the greatest threat to that dwindling ecosystem in Canada is agriculture.
“There’s many concerns about the Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project, but one of them is that the government and proponents of development are saying that one of the benefits is they will be able to increase irrigated acres and, well, that probably means that some of the native grassland that’s along Lake Diefenbaker … would be converted to grow hay or something,” says Herriot.
Environment Canada also raised concerns about that loss in the impact analysis, noting conversion of that land is “likely to have a large detrimental effect on many already declining grassland bird populations, including migratory birds.”
That new land, and the irrigation system that feeds it, could also drive up already-high prices for farmland. Those higher prices, in turn, increase the need for efficiency and can result in even greater habitat destruction to pull more from each acre of land.
Farm Credit Canada, which tracks the value of farmland in the country, shows irrigated land is often more valuable than similar, unirrigated tracts.
“In areas like southern Alberta, for example, irrigated acres there are going to have a higher value than the dry land … [because] they are able to grow different crops and just have better control over that growing period,” Chris Prejet, an appraiser with Farm Credit, says.
The organization added a new category to its annual farmland values report in 2021, showing irrigated land in west central and southwestern Saskatchewan, and noted it is the most valuable in the province at an average price of $5,000 per acre.
It was the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, an umbrella organization that represents 74 First Nations throughout Saskatchewan, that first requested the Impact Assessment Agency step in and look at the irrigation project.
“There are concerns that water management decisions prioritize industrial and agricultural allocations over ecosystems and the impact it will have on First Nations and their ability to exercise their Inherent and Treaty Rights and traditional activities,” reads a portion of the request to review the project from June 2021, signed by federation Vice Chief Heather Bear.
The federation request says there was “no dialogue” with First Nations on the project. The federation has not answered interview requests from The Narwhal asking for an update on any consultations since that time.
The File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, which represents 11 Treaty 4 Nations, was one of several First Nations organizations or bands that also sent letters to the agency. It argued the project could violate inherent Treaty Rights by affecting river flows and the ability to travel those rivers, impacts on fish and fishing, increased pollution of waterways and flooding of culturally significant land.
The Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs organization, which represents seven nations in west-central Saskatchewan, was more blunt, saying it was unacceptable the nations had not been provided more information and were being forced to engage with third parties instead of the government.
“Third party engagement and consultations will no longer be tolerated or accepted,” reads the letter dated July 28, 2021 and signed by Neil Sasakamoose, executive director of the tribal agency.
“There are many ways to approach this process, but this defined process of telling First Nations ‘how things will happen’ is an old and tired concept.”
Requests to speak with someone from the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council and with Sasakamoose from the Battlefords Agency Tribal Council were not returned.
The Water Security Agency says the expansion project will be designated for a provincial environmental assessment and argues in its response to the Impact Assessment Agency that it should not also receive the close attention of the federal government. It also argues the three phases of the project ought to be considered in isolation and not as a single project — something critics oppose.
The project was supposed to be designated for provincial review in January, but that deadline has come and gone. The Water Security Agency did not respond to questions sent by The Narwhal, including on an updated timeline for that designation and the project as a whole.
Leavitt, from the University of Regina, says the crossborder impacts of the project also can’t be ignored, with affected water flowing into Manitoba and Alberta — which is planning its own irrigation expansion.
He argues there is also a direct conflict within the province, with the Water Security Agency acting as both regulator for water and proponent of the irrigation project.
In November 2021, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault determined the first two phases of the project should not be designated for federal review at this point in time because there are not enough details about their final design. That decision could change as more details become available.
The third phase, however, will fall within federal jurisdiction to review.
The File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council urged the federal agency to step in, in part because it says Saskatchewan’s environmental assessment process is “woefully out of date.”
The Impact Assessment Agency says the Water Security Agency has not provided any additional information since the minister’s decision.
Updated July 15, 2022, at 9:15 a.m. MT: This article was updated to fix the attribution on a quote regarding grasslands. It was Trevor Herriot, not Peter Leavitt, who said the project would open new land to farming and threaten native grasslands.
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