Time for Another Big Dig?

Gardiner Dam
Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.

The province is reeling from the biggest economic contraction in decades, while the changing climate is wreaking havoc with crops and threatening the water security of humans and livestock alike.

Sound familiar? This scenario played out in the Dirty Thirties, when Saskatchewan was brought to its knees after nearly a decade of drought, soil erosion and collapsed markets for grains and other agricultural commodities.

In 1935, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) was created to rebuild the devastated Prairie landscape and replenish the soil ravaged by years of drought and wind. One of the solutions the PFRA proposed was a long-studied project dating back to the Palliser Expedition of 1857—the building of a canal connecting the South Saskatchewan River to the Qu’Appelle River.

For 20 years—from ‘30s to the mid-50s—the South Saskatchewan River project was championed by the CCF government of Tommy Douglas, former premier and federal Liberal agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner and Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. “Never before or since have so many political colours been so closely associated,’’ said John Archer, author of Saskatchewan: A History.

The project began in 1959 with the construction of the world’s then-largest earthfill dam, the Gardiner Dam, and completed in 1967 with the creation of Diefenbaker Lake.

Today, some people are seeing the same confluence of economic events, climatic conditions and political consensus that led to the development of the South Saskatchewan River project 60 years ago. One of those people is former MP and cabinet minister Ralph Goodale, who believes it’s time for another generational water project—the Upper Qu’Appelle Water Supply Project (UQWSP).

Back in June 2019, when he was minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Goodale spoke to Western Economic Diversification’s Prairie Water Summit in Regina. He told summit delegates that the South Saskatchewan River project supplies 65 per cent of Saskatchewan’s drinking water, irrigates more than 120,000 acres of land, and generates 186 megawatts of electricity from the Coteau Creek Generating Station, which is enough to service 100,000 homes.

“But still,’’ Goodale told delegates, “we are utilizing only a tiny fraction of the project’s potential—more water evaporates from Diefenbaker Lake than we actually use.’’

Indeed, the original plan was to have as many as four conduits or canals to distribute water from Diefenbaker Lake to other parts of the province. The Qu’Appelle Valley and southeast are faced with increasing water concerns, ranging from adequate drinking water for Regina and Moose Jaw, flooding and major storms costing billions of dollars in damage. And climate change poses the added risk of more frequent and devastating droughts.

“Ironically, because of climate change, we are probably facing more serious soil and water issues today than those that prompted the creation of the (PFRA) agency in 1935,’’ Goodale told summit delegates in Regina.

“So what if we were now to rekindle the idea of linking Diefenbaker Lake to the Qu’Appelle Valley?’’

Diefenbaker Lake has the potential to irrigate another 450,000 acres from the development of the UQWSP. That could give Saskatchewan producers the ability to grow higher-value crops than are currently grown in the area.

It would also provide water for value-added agricultural companies, like Protein Industries Canada (PIC). PIC is expected to attract up to $400 million of private sector investment on top of the $150 million coming from the feds.

Goodale said the initial capital investment by senior governments in the UQWSP would generate roughly five times the amount of capital invested by private industry in irrigation projects and value-added crop production and processing.

“The capital costs that governments would have to come up with would be about $2 billion,’’ Goodale said in a recent interview with Industry West. “That would trigger over $10 billion in private sector investment and something like 10,000 person-years of employment and add at least 100,000 acres to the irrigation base in Saskatchewan.” Including the multiplier effect of the increased economic activity, the project could add three per cent onto Saskatchewan’s GDP or about $35 billion, he said.

“It’s truly a transformational project. This will change the face of rural Saskatchewan. It’s a nation-building project,’’ Goodale said, noting that Ottawa has committed to spend $180 billion on infrastructure projects over the next 10 years.

One person who knows more about the UQWSP than just about anyone is Wayne Clifton, president of Clifton Engineering Group of Regina. In fact, Clifton has been looking at the project, on and off, for the better part of 50 years.

“My theme has been that agri-food is the sustainable industry of the region, but it’s only sustainable if you bring water to this semi-arid region,’’ Clifton said in an interview with IW.

Captain John Palliser, whose expedition visited the area in the 1850s, came to much the same conclusion about 160 years ago. Palliser concluded the region, which includes most of southern Saskatchewan known as “Palliser’s Triangle,’’ had “limited and uncertain rainfall’’ and “lack of water and timber,’’ making “settlement difficult, if not impossible.’’ But Palliser and others believed if some water from rivers, like the South Saskatchewan, could be diverted and retained through dams, agricultural production and settlement could become sustainable.

Clifton said the PFRA tried to bring water to individual homesteads through small dams and dugouts, but soon realized that larger-scale projects were needed. Thus, the South Saskatchewan River Project was born, and 20 years of studying, negotiating and haggling began.

Clifton said completing the final leg would achieve the project’s irrigation potential, while increasing water supply and quality for Moose Jaw and Regina, and drought and flood-proofing much of southeast Saskatchewan.

“What Goodale is pushing for is a transformative investment in water security to southeast Saskatchewan,’’ said Clifton, who headed up the $18-million Wascana Lake Urban Revitalization Project in 2004. Better known as the Big Dig, it was funded by $9 million from the federal government (when Goodale was federal finance minister), with $5 million from the provincial government and $4 million from the City of Regina.

Once again, the federal government is taking the lead, allocating $1 million in the March 2019 federal budget to WED to study the UQWSP project and make recommendations. The provincial government set aside $5 million in the 2020-21 budget for SaskBuilds Corp., the agency charged with infrastructure development and government procurement, to study the project.

Lyle Stewart, MLA for Lumsden-Morse and the province’s former agriculture minister, said the province is looking at two potential projects: the west-side irrigation project, which could irrigate 370,000 acres, and the south project, which could irrigate 110,000 acres.

Some work was done on the west-side project in the 1970s, including a canal, reservoir and about 50,000 acres of irrigation, but was abandoned by the Blakeney government in 1973. Stewart said that project could be salvaged and expanded.

“That’s what we’re mainly looking at—the irrigation and value-added jobs and investment that kind of project can attract. We think we’re pretty well-positioned right now to move forward with that.’’

Stewart said the irrigation expansion project could be attractive to large value-added agricultural processors, like PIC. “You really start to see the advantages of irrigation when you reach a certain number of acres. It starts to attract higher-value crops, like vegetable crops and processing facilities.’’

In fact, Stewart says large-scale irrigation is the missing piece of the puzzle for large agricultural processing companies looking to invest in the province.

“We’ve had large processing companies up here in the past. They said, ‘You’ve got everything we like; you’ve got the right soils, you’ve got lots of sunshine, long summer days…  But you don’t have enough irrigation acres to guarantee us (water) supply’.’’

Going ahead with UQWSP would give Saskatchewan a better shot at attracting the billions of dollars of investment required to turn the province into a value-added food processing powerhouse, he said.

It would also help the Saskatchewan Party government achieve the goals of its latest growth plan—increasing agri-food exports to $20 billion and increasing agriculture value-added revenue by $10 billion in 10 years. The 2020-2030 Growth Plan also calls for another 85,000 acres of land under irrigation.

“We have about 350,000 acres scattered around the province, mainly around Diefenbaker Lake, right now. There are (potentially) 370,000 acres on the west side and 110,000 on the south side. We think we can develop another 85,000 acres in the existing irrigation districts,” Stewart said. “That puts us at one million acres plus. That’s where we need to be.’’

Like Stewart and Clifton, Goodale believes the political, environmental and economic stars have aligned to turn this project from a century-and-half-old dream to a reality.  “It’s an idea whose time has absolutely come.’’

Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.

Gardiner Dam. Photo by Angela Patron Photography.