High-Water Mark: Long-time Dreams Becoming Reality

Gardiner Dam
Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.

Little more than a year ago, the goal of realizing the full potential of the half-century-old South Saskatchewan River Project (SSRP) seemed like, well, a pipe dream.

Today, that dream is one step closer to reality, with feasibility studies and pre-engineering work underway on the Westside Irrigation Project (WIP).

Last July, the provincial government gave the go-ahead to the three-phase, 10-year, $4-billion irrigation project at Lake Diefenbaker—in dollar terms, the biggest infrastructure project in the province’s history.
The project would add 500,000 acres of irrigable land, bringing the total number of acres under irrigation to over a million, increasing provincial GDP by $40 billion to $80 billion and creating 2,500 construction jobs over 10 years.

“The announcement of this generational project will see the vision of Lake Diefenbaker completed over the next decade,’’ Premier Scott Moe said in a press release in July 2020. “By doubling the amount of irrigable land in our province, this project would be a massive step in completing the goals our government has set out in our 2030 Growth Plan.’’

In February 2021, the province announced that Clifton Associates of Regina had been selected to lead the preliminary engineering work on the first two phases of the WIP.

“This is an important step forward to realizing the irrigation potential of Lake Diefenbaker,’’ said Jim Reiter, minister responsible for SaskBuilds and Procurement, which is leading negotiations with the federal government on funding for the project.

Former Saskatchewan Liberal MP and cabinet minister and currently Canada’s High Commissioner to the U.K., Ralph Goodale said the announcement was welcome news after years of ‘thumping the tub’ for completing the SRRP.

“This can be transformational in terms of agriculture and Saskatchewan’s economy,’’ Goodale says, adding the impact of the expanded irrigated agriculture sector could be “in the range of four to five per cent of GDP. That’s huge.’’

But Saskatchewan farmers have to embrace the project, which was designed and built by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in 1960s, Goodale said in an interview from London.

“There has to be an uptake on the part of the agricultural community, which wasn’t there 50 years ago,’’ Goodale says, referring to the original WIP, one of four irrigation projects to be supplied by Lake Diefenbaker. In fact, the first stretch of the Westside Main Canal was begun in 1969 under the Thatcher Liberal government, but abandoned in 1973 by the Blakeney NDP government, partly due to lack of uptake by local producers.

Goodale acknowledged there’s a long way to go to turn that 50-year-old dream into reality. “But there’s more positive focus and more positive momentum now than we’ve seen in 50 years.’’

That’s certainly the view of Terry Duguid, MP for Winnipeg–South and parliamentary secretary to the minister responsible for Western Economic Diversification, which has conducted several studies of the project over the last two years.

“This is a visionary initiative and it’s going to take some time to turn it into a practical reality. We’re still at the beginning of that journey, but some important steps are taking place.’’

The person in charge of taking those first steps is Wayne Clifton, CEO of Clifton Associates, who’s leading the team of engineers and consultants doing the preliminary engineering designs for the first two phases of the Westside Irrigation Project.

(The third phase, the Qu’Appelle South Irrigation Project, which would link Lake Diefenbaker with the Qu’Appelle River system, adding another 120,000 acres of irrigable land, is not part of Clifton’s contract.)

“We’re working in association with Stantec and Associated Engineering,’’ Clifton says, adding the three firms each have more than 40 years of experience on major projects in the province. Phase one, known as the Westside Rehabilitation Project, will complete the work abandoned in the 1970s and increase the amount of irrigable acres by up to 80,000 acres.

Clifton says some of the original WIP infrastructure, including a canal and pump station foundation, could be rehabilitated, reducing the overall cost of the first phase.

Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.

Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.

Phase two, called the Westside Expansion Project, will expand the irrigation area by another 260,000 acres. Clifton’s team will be determining the optimal location for the canal and reservoirs, if required. Clifton concedes that “irrigation is a much more expensive proposition” in Saskatchewan because of the cost of lifting the water, compared with Alberta where irrigation water is fed by gravity from higher elevations.

“The big, big part of the difference is pumping costs,’’ Clifton says, noting that average water fees in Alberta are $12-$15 per acre versus $50 per acre in Saskatchewan. Still, Clifton says studies show that “irrigation is economic,” thanks to more competitive construction costs, lower interest rates and improved technology. “The benefit-cost ratios are very positive.’’

But Bob Halliday, vice-president of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and president of R. Halliday & Associates, a Saskatoon-based consulting engineering firm, questions some of the economic projections being touted by the project’s proponents.

“If you’re going to spend $4 billion on making Saskatchewan’s economy more sustainable, what options should you consider? I would like to see what the other options are,’’ Halliday said in an interview.

Halliday says the project could result in a “significant reduction in downstream flows,’’ which could reduce hydroelectric production at Coteau Creek generating station at Gardiner Dam, reduce water for existing irrigators, reduce water supply for downstream communities, including Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Regina, and lead to “degraded” water-based recreational, tourism and fisheries resources.

Halliday urged the federal and provincial governments to proceed slowly with the development of the WIP, and only after careful analysis and consultation with First Nations and other affected groups.
“I would caution them to take it one step at a time and prove it as you go along, rather than say we’re going to build the whole thing.’’

But a phased approach is exactly what the province is doing, says Patrick Boyle, executive director of communications for the Water Security Agency, which is coordinating the project for the province, along with SaskBuilds and the Ministry of Agriculture.

“The Westside Irrigation Project is the first and second phase, and the future works go from there. We’re focused on phase one and two right now.”

As for the estimated $4-billion capital cost, “all costs are estimates, until the pre-planning and design phase gets in place,’’ Boyle says.

As for concerns the project will reduce water for downstream users, Boyle says environmental impact assessments will be conducted to ensure that the project isn’t unduly affecting other water users.

Similarly, only land suitable for irrigation would be included in the project plan, which would have to be approved by the Ministry of Agriculture.

“All the environmental assessments and processes will be factored into the planning of the project.”

Boyle stresses that one of the major reasons Lake Diefenbaker was built 50 years ago was to provide water for large-scale irrigation. “Really, this project is a continuation of the vision from when (Lake) Diefenbaker and Gardiner Dam were built,’’ Boyle says. “We’ve never achieved what it was initially designed to do.’’

“In 30 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘why didn’t we do that sooner?’’