In a speech launching the Prairie Water Summit in Regina on Monday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale proposed expanding the South Saskatchewan River Project to irrigate land and protect against droughts and floods in the province.
The South Saskatchewan River Project was developed in the 1940s, 50s and 60s following severe droughts that ravaged the Prairies in the 1930s. Conceived as a way to better manage water on the Prairies and combat drought, the project involved the damming of the Qu’Appelle and South Saskatchewan Rivers to form Diefenbaker Lake.
Initially, the project proposed building four conduits to channel water from the Diefenbaker Lake reservoir in all directions to drought and flood-proof the province. That part of the plan was never realized.
“It was a bold, audacious idea when it was first developed in the 30s, 40s and 50s, driven by the bitter experience of the Dirty Thirties,” Goodale said. “But it’s an idea that is even more relevant today than it was back then.”
Goodale said conduits could take the form of above ground canals or pipelines. The conduits would leave the south end of Diefenbaker Lake and make their way to Pasqua Lake before entering the Qu’Appelle Valley.
He said that while a project of this could cost $2 billion, it could irrigate as much as 100,000 new acres of land, increasing the potential yield value of that land “five or six times.”
“The financial resources required are large but compared to the benefits, they’re a tiny fraction of what we would add to the GDP or create in terms of private investment,” Goodale said.
He cited the plant protein industry as one that could benefit greatly from enhanced irrigation, but multi-level government cooperation is needed to make the project, which he described as still being in the idea phase, a reality.
“The challenge is getting everybody on the same page to see the issues in the same way so there can be a consensus about what needs to be done. That’s really the purpose of this discussion.”
Goodale said the Diefenbaker Lake reservoir already helps protect the South Saskatchewan River from flooding. He says building the conduits could do the same for south-central and southeast Saskatchewan.
“It makes common sense to invest in the infrastructure ahead of the disaster rather than paying what will be the more expensive cost to clean up the cost after the disaster.”
The two day Prairie Water Summit was organized by Western Economic Diversification Canada (WEDC). It brought together stakeholders from the agriculture industry, business organizations, indigenous communities and all levels of government to discuss the future of water on the prairies.
WEDC was given $1 million dollars in the 2019 federal budget to explore the threat climate change poses to water security.