Press Release: Conservation group says provincial irrigation plan needs comprehensive assessment

Press Release

Saskatchewan Environmental Society
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
For immediate release

Conservation group says provincial irrigation plan needs comprehensive assessment

The fifty-year old conservation organization, Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) says a new Saskatchewan irrigation plan needs an Environmental Assessment to ensure that the project does not negatively impact our most precious resource: water.

On July 2, 2020 the Government of Saskatchewan announced that work would begin immediately on a $4 billion plan to irrigate some 500,000 acres (200,000 ha) of land from Lake Diefenbaker over a 10-year period, doubling the irrigable land in the province.

“The South Saskatchewan River represents the main reliable freshwater source for much of southern Saskatchewan. Urban centres like Regina, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon are totally dependent on the river for their water supply; and many smaller communities, farmers, industries, and other water users also depend on the river,” says Bob Halliday, water resources engineer and Vice-President of the SES. “Any project of this magnitude must be considered on the basis of environmental consequences, economic impacts and public policy ramifications – that’s why we are calling for a comprehensive environmental impact assessment to be carried out,” says Halliday.

While the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) has economic and public policy concerns with this project, they emphasize the many potential environmental concerns of this Irrigation Plan, such as:

  • The effects of the project downstream from Lake Diefenbaker would be driven by a significant reduction in downstream flows. The first and most obvious would be a reduction in hydroelectricity produced at the Coteau Creek generating station and all the hydroelectric facilities to Hudson Bay. It is policy perverse in this era to be reducing renewable power generation and replacing it with gas-fired power generation.
  • Reduced summer flows could pose challenges for irrigators who draw their water directly from the South Saskatchewan River downstream of Lake Diefenbaker and for maintaining Pike Lake water levels.
  • Reduced summer flows could affect water quality and riparian ecosystems, and lead to degraded water-based recreational and tourism opportunities in Saskatoon and other downstream communities. Fisheries resources in downstream reservoirs could also be affected.
  • Reduced winter flows could aggravate ice cover management upstream of Saskatoon thus resulting in increased risk of damaging ice jams.
  • Decreased flows could have very significant effects on the Saskatchewan River delta, which straddles the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. This delta is the largest inland freshwater delta in North America. It features an enormously productive ecosystem and is an internationally-designated Important Bird Area. The delta is home to aboriginal people who live a traditional life and it features Saskatchewan’s oldest community.
  • Water receiving areas to the west and north of Lake Diefenbaker and in the upper Qu’Appelle River basin could be subject to wetland loss, changes in riparian habitat, and erosion, plus nutrient and contaminant mobilization. Agricultural land would be lost to canal construction.
  • There is also a question of the suitability of the proposed lands for irrigation. Soil profiles and groundwater levels in the area will lead to saline break-outs that contaminate the soil.
  • The potential effects of changes in water quantity and quality on communities along the lower Qu’Appelle River to the Manitoba border must be considered.

Before this project proceeds any further, the SES advocates that:

a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment be prepared for this project. Such a statement would also deal with economic and public policy matters.

federal financial support for any part of this project should be contingent on the conduct of a thorough federal-provincial environment impact assessment.

the terms of reference for any environmental assessment be established with public consultation.

“The Province’s irrigation proposal has many unanswered questions – we should not move ahead irresponsibly on a $4 billion proposal until we have carefully examined the environmental, economic, and public policy consequences of the project,” adds Halliday.