Federal study touts economic benefits of Sask $4B irrigation expansion

A federal government study is touting the economic benefits of Saskatchewan's multi-billion dollar irrigation plan.

Critics question cost, lack on Indigenous, environmental consultation

A federal study is touting the benefits of a proposed multi-billion dollar irrigation expansion for Saskatchewan. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

A federal government study is touting the economic benefits of Saskatchewan's multi-billion dollar irrigation plan.

Critics, however, note many questions remain unanswered, from environmental impact to the indirect costs.

The provincial government announced the $4 billion project this summer and said work is set to begin immediately.

The study, produced by Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD), said the project could generate tens of billions in economic activity and improve water security for the province.

"This is the right moment to take a bold stance," states the study, which was named Prairie Prosperity: A Vision for the Management of Water Resources across Saskatchewan and the Prairies.

It echoes comments from the Saskatchewan government. MLA and former provincial agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart noted Albert and other jurisdictions have already maximized the amount of water they're allowed to remove from rivers for irrigation.

He said other irrigation regions in the American southwest are running out of water. That means Saskatchewan will be ideally positioned to capture more of the market  for high value vegetable crops.

Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary for Western Economic Diversification Canada, says a proposed multi-billion dollar irrigation could be good for Saskatchewan. (Handout)

WD Parliamentary Secretary Terry Duguid said all levels of government can work together on the project.

"We see this as an example of nation building, as well as cooperative federalism," Duguid said.

Duguid said the project is a good idea, but can't begin without first consulting Indigenous groups ad conducting a full environmental assessment.

"And really, that's what the process is all about, is really answering the questions," Duguid said.

The study focuses on the possible economic benefits, but admits there will be costs that have not been taken into account. More irrigation means less water for hydroelectric power generation from Lake Diefenbaker. That could add billions to the cost, some academics have pointed out.

"There are also trade-offs that will occur as irrigation is expanded, as there are multiple users and uses for the water resources in Lake Diefenbaker, all with their preferred lake level," said the study.

Critics wonder how the provincial, and now federal government, can endorse the project before the studies have been done, and before all costs have been calculated.

Groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation say they're worried about the cost, pointing to the billions in overruns on other water resource projects such as the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric generation in Newfoundland.

Indigenous and environmental groups say there are concerns about the effect on the ecologically valuable Saskatchewan River Delta.