Letter to the Editors of the Regina Leader Post and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix

May 20th, 2020

Letter to the Editors of the Regina Leader Post and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Last week your newspaper published an Opinion Piece by R.A. Halliday entitled “Diefenbaker project not worth the cost.”   Our SIPA Board of Directors reviewed this piece of work and would provide an alternative view on so the called “Diefenbaker Project” and on the urgent need to finish the work that was started in the 1950s.  In reality the “Diefenbaker Project” was far more than the view of one federal politician.  Following the droughts of the 1930s political leaders from all federal and provincial political parties looked for long-term solutions.  Water was to be made available for large-scale irrigation.

The South Saskatchewan River Project (SSRP) was born to create a water heart in the middle of the Palliser Triangle with the objective of distributing the waters for primarily irrigation, but also industries, wildlife, municipalities and farmsteads.  Irrigation following the widespread dryland crop failures of the “Dirty 30s.”

The Dam would not have been built but for irrigation.  Without the irrigation investments the other multi purpose benefits for wildlife, hydroelectric power, potable and industrial water supplies and urban flood protection would not have proceeded.   SSRP set out to regulate river flows in the watershed of the South, North and Saskatchewan Rivers providing to protect against volatile 20th Century weather.  

The benefits were significant. In the 50 years prior to Gardiner Dam’s construction floods occurred south of Saskatoon in 27 years – a flood more than every other year.  Opening the dam cut the frequency of flooding by more than a half.  Similarly, rural populations around Lake Diefenbaker were declining without a reliable water source.  With secure water supplies on the east side of Lake Diefenbaker populations grew, while on the west side of the Lake without irrigation waters the population continued its declines.  Both were meaningful changes to life in central Saskatchewan.

However, it should be noted, for the record, that a number of Mr. Halliday’s remarks are not fully informed and can benefit from the experience of our SIPA members.  It would be helpful to set the record straight.

On irrigation development Mr. Halliday seems to believe that the original irrigation potential of the SSRP is not being met citing a crop mix that still includes irrigated grains, oilseeds and forage – all dryland crops.  These crops will always remain important in irrigation districts since crop rotations are necessary to maintain and build quality soils.  Thus today cereals account for 35% of the irrigated crop area in the Lake Diefenbaker area, oilseeds, 26%, Pulses 15% Forage Crops 12% and specialty crops 8%.

It should be realized, however, irrigated crops are grown with consistently higher yields and without crop failures from the frequent droughts that continue to the present day and can wither and destroy dryland crops.  The benefits of being able to harvest a crop each and every year means that yields are higher and more reliable, financial returns are made on investments in land, seed, fertilizers, irrigation equipment and farm debts are reduced.  Irrigation claims for compensation from governments for crop insurance or drought losses do not occur.  The financial and economic impact of severe droughts avoids the billion dollar taxpayer drought payments that already occur far too frequently and in the future could be expected to continue.

On Hydro Electric Power Mr. Halliday suggests that: “Hydropower was installed as almost an afterthought.” The historical reality of the South Saskatchewan River Project (SSRP) as first presented by PFRA was that power would be generated from the Gardiner and Qu’Appelle dams and owned by the farmers to use for irrigation. This is hardly an afterthought as suggested.  The shift of ownership to the SaskPower monopoly supplier led to lower provincial priorities to service new irrigation districts with power and to regulate river flows to meet the needs of irrigators.

Periodically, as in 2011 and 2015 unscheduled water discharges from the Gardiner Dam to meet power utility requirements along the South Saskatchewan River downstream to Saskatoon have washed out irrigation water intakes without warning or compensation.  Hydrological interests of both the river and water users are not and have not been met.  

Mr. Halliday suggests that SaskPower receives some $500 million in annual revenues from hydropower from its turbines at Lake Diefenbaker and other downstream locations.  “Today Hydropower is the single most significant economic benefit of the South Saskatchewan Project. Alternative uses for the same water, however, show much higher returns from using the water for irrigation. In 2006 the long run value of water was estimated by Kulshreshtha at the University of Saskatchewan at a low $1/cubic decameter for hydropower compared to between $10 and $62/ cubic decameter for irrigation in Saskatchewan depending on crop mix and drought years.[i]  

Clearly, rational decision makers would support the irrigation expansion rather than continued hydro use.  Fortunately this choice is not necessary due to the potential for even more green power by proceeding on projects to complete the West Side Irrigation Canal and Upper Qu’Appelle Conveyance, although for these projects to proceed it would make sense to have the sustainable green power generated not be used only in the context of SaskPower priorities.

On the same theme Mr. Halliday states that: “Water diverted from the river is water that does not flow through turbines.”  This is a common misunderstanding of irrigation water use.  The reality is that irrigators all hold water licenses that provide for the extraction of water from surface and groundwater locations. However, the extraction of water for irrigation is only half of the story, a fact of which Mr. Halliday should be fully aware because of the contributions irrigators make to water conservations and environmental protection. 

On Water Conservation irrigators carefully apply water to their crops, as plant growth requires using increasingly sophisticated water conserving technologies.  While in the distant past flood irrigation was a preferred means irrigation, this has long ago been replaced by more efficient centre pivot and drop centre pivots seen in the fields today. For high value vegetable and root crops drip irrigation increasingly controls water applications.  These considerations lead to four conclusions that Mr. Halliday conveniently ignores:

  1. Lake Diefenbaker Already Provides a Reliable Source of Water.  The Full Supply Level of the Gardiner Dam from the 200km long Lake Diefenbaker is 7.62 million acre-feet of which 3.3% evaporates each year, 3.4% is diverted and consumed and 93.2% flows downstream to Hudson Bay and into Manitoba.  Return irrigation water flows are largely ignored. The South Saskatchewan River Irrigation District (SSIRD) holds the largest water license in Saskatchewan and most of the extracted water volume is returned into the hydrological cycle after use. Only a small proportion is used for plant growth.
  2. Water conservations technologies have already reduced the irrigation water demands by as much as 85%. These water savings will only increase with the new emerging technologies supported by SIPA at the world class Canada Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre in Outlook.
  3. Applying the new technologies and accurately measuring water use, extraction and return, suggests there is ample water to expand irrigation around Lake Diefenbaker as originally proposed in the SSRP.  Total irrigation water demands for 600,00 existing and proposed acres around Lake Diefenbaker would require some 595,000 cubic decameters with existing water use technologies.  This would amount to less than 20% of the available flow in extreme drought years and less than 3% in normal rainfall years. 21st Century emerging water conservation technologies will further reduces irrigation water use. Advances in irrigation application and water discharge efficiencies can provide large water savings for application to an expansion in irrigated acres.
  4. Global warming in the Prairies predicts high levels of variability in dry and wet years. Rising ocean levels change ocean currents and increase mountain snows.  There are hydrological issues with both too little and too much water. More, not less, water management will be required in the form of diversions and dams to address these issues.   There is, therefore, considerable agreement for improved levels of water management to better accommodate the annual variations in the climate. Increasing regional water management and storage options with the completion of the east and west side canals will allow for more efficient and effective water distribution and allocation options between the North and South Saskatchewan rivers, while maintaining secure supplies for the northern delta on the Saskatchewan River.   

On Environmental Benefits Mr. Halliday is right to be concerned over the environmental implications of major water projects, but primarily focuses only on some possibly negative consequences. These types of issues were all raised earlier at the time of the original SSRP and been found wanting.

SIPA members are strong supporters of a healthy natural environment and are in practice the true custodians of the wetlands, rivers and lakes that many urban folk and the Partners for the Saskatchewan River Basin, love to protect.  So do SIPA members in many practical ways. Irrigation water management from Lake Diefenbaker has saved many of the wetlands in dry central Saskatchewan, particularly in drought years where fish and other species do not do well in dried up riverbeds and rotting dried out marshlands. 

On Value Added Benefits Mr. Halliday questions the absence of increased levels of value added investments around the irrigation economy looking instead towards Manitoba Hydro with long distance transmission lines to power Saskatchewan’s growth. It is true that compared to our neighbouring provinces Saskatchewan has been less successful in attracting value added investments.  In large part this has been due to the ever changing and uncertain support for irrigation development itself.  Here once again, Mr. Halliday joins the chorus of the skeptical. 

However, the Lake Diefenbaker area is only now approaching 100,00 acres of irrigation, a threshold level that might support increased value added processing.  Completing the two SSRP projects on the east and west side of the Lake would create the very thresholds necessary to make the value added investments more viable. Further expansions of irrigation districts around Lake Diefenbaker requires the further investments in major water infrastructure to extend main line canals, twin piping and establish storage reservoirs.  Some irrigation districts already have waiting lists for entry.

In a world of increasingly uncertain food production it is time for Saskatchewan to set its sights on the higher value added agriculture for sale into domestic and international markets, supported by the world leading technologies and cultural practices already in place at the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre at Outlook.

To do so in an era of climate change requires reliable agricultural supplies. Alberta to the west has achieved much of that potential with less water and land.  Saskatchewan has a deep understanding of agriculture.  Irrigated agriculture will be the next logical progression of the agri-food sector for the 21st Century and a major new sustainable platform in Saskatchewan economic, social and environmental growth. 

Finally, Mr. Halliday questions the $3B cost of completing the Lake Diefenbaker project.  This assertion denies and ignores the obvious socio-economic-environmental benefits associated with these public expenditures. Numerous economic studies of the costs and benefits of irrigation in all three Prairie Provinces identify significant returns to irrigation water infrastructure investments.  In 2008 the SSRP completion projects estimated the $3B investment would directly create an on farm irrigation investment of $1B over the following twenty years.  Over the full 40 year evaluation period these investments would lead to a $35B growth in GDP, a $13B increase in Household incomes and a 326,000 person year increase in employment.  In addition, there would be social and environmental benefits.[ii]  These are just the scale of economic activities that Saskatchewan and Canada require to recover from the Carona19 Virus Pandemic led recession.   

Mr. Goodale was right to identify the $3B as a good investment in Saskatchewan’s future. Time to Irrigate was the title of one of SIPA’s economic evaluations of the SSRP.  We now believe it is time to stop studying and get the final stage of the project underway.

Saskatchewan has only just started the water based transformation of agri-food production and processing.  It is now time to complete the work of the SSRP with its vision for world class reliable agricultural production and processing, protected from the vagaries of weather and climate by innovative water management for irrigation.  Complemented by its world leading irrigated food production and water management and monitoring technologies, domestic and international growth can be assured.

Perhaps Mr. Halliday can lend his hydrological expertise to solving the constraints to water based development, rather than introducing red herrings hanging on long distance transmission lines into a more constructive discussion of Saskatchewan’s future.

Sandra Bathgate SIPA Administrator

Signed on behalf of the SIPA Board of Directors and SIPA Membership

SIPA (Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association) was established as a non-profit organization in 1996 with a mandate is to represent the interests of the irrigation membership in Saskatchewan and to provide a common voice for issues concerning irrigators.


REFERENCES

[i] See for examples the studies completed by Prof. Surendra Kulthreshtha, University of Saskatchewan in:

SIPA (2008), Time to Irrigate Volume II, Page 170.

[ii] SIPA (2008) Time to Irrigate Volume II, page ii.