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Lake Diefenbaker takes spotlight in new report that touts benefits of expanded irrigation

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A new plan with federal support could expand Saskatchewan’s irrigation by nearly 500,000 acres through Lake Diefenbaker, officials estimate. If the project unfolds, it could make the Prairies global leaders in agri-food production in the face of irrigation regions in the American southwest running out of water. Photo credit: David, AdobeStock.

A new report is endorsing a series of irrigation projects that would see multiple users competing for resources available through Saskatchewan’s Lake Diefenbaker.

Saskatchewan’s $4 billion irrigation plan, which would draw from the lake, is touted in a new report as a way to boost the economy by some $83 billion in the long term, add a combined 22,700 jobs and improve water security. It’s a plan that provincial officials already committed to over the summer, although many details, consultations and assessments have yet to be addressed.

The plan would support irrigation expansion by nearly 500,000 acres, officials estimate, potentially making the Prairies global leaders in agri-food production in the face of irrigation regions in the American southwest running out of water.

“The interconnected nature of water resources in the Prairies means that the decisions and actions taken in one province, such as agricultural drainage, water allocation, and industrial investment decisions, are all compounded as water moves downstream,” states the new report, Prairie Prosperity: A Vision for the Management of Water across Saskatchewan and the Prairies, by Western Economic Diversification Canada.

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One tradeoff of the irrigation plan, however, is that it would mean less water for hydroelectric power generation from Lake Diefenbaker, a caveat that could add billions in costs, some critics have noted.

“[…] In anticipation of future drought events, and to address the trade-offs of increased irrigation diversions, the operating objectives of Lake Diefenbaker should be reviewed,” the report states.

The new report also endorses the province’s recently approved Upper Qu’Appelle Canal (UQC) and Westside Irrigation projects, both of which would also draw water from Lake Diefenbaker. The UQC project would divert water from the Qu’Appelle Dam at Lake Diefenbaker and move it 87 km southeast through an open, upland canal beside the Qu’Appelle Valley to Buffalo Pound Lake, the municipal water source for the Regina – Moose Jaw region.

The Westside Irrigation project would consist of a refurbished and expanded canal system with multiple reservoirs along the northward route.

The report suggests that the combined water diversions for both projects would account for less than 5% of the inflow from Lake Diefenbaker. When both projects are included, the total outflow requirements, including evaporative losses, account for approximately 31% of all available inflow into Lake Diefenbaker, the report states.

Recreational users, who currently enjoy three provincial parks, over 800 km of shoreline, and multiple water-based activities on Lake Diefenbaker, prefer stable lake levels, the report notes.

“[…] Prioritizing a stable lake level for irrigation and recreational users involves trade-offs with hydropower production and flood prevention, as there is less flexibility in the operation of Lake Diefenbaker when lake levels are kept constant.”

If the irrigation projects continue to move ahead, they could take as long as a decade to complete.

The undertaking into examining sustainable water management in the context of climate volatility began with the Prairie Water Summit in June 2019 in Regina, which was attended by over 130 experts, as well as Indigenous leaders, provincial, federal and municipal officials, industry representatives and non-governmental organizations.

The federal government invested up to $1 million so that over the last 16 months Western Economic Diversification Canada could work with partners and stakeholders on a new water approach.

“There is much work ahead of us, but Saskatchewan and the Prairies have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure their place as global leaders in agri-food production and water management, while also leaving future generations with a more sustainable economy and good jobs,” announced Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary to the minister of economic development and official languages, in a statement on the report.

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