Quill Lakes water-diversion project bypasses environmental impact assessment

The Saskatchewan government has decided the latest proposal for diverting water from an area plagued by excess water doesn't need an environmental impact assessment.

Decision 'removed those of us living downstream from the conversation,' says group worried about salinity

The Saskatchewan government has decided that a project to divert water from the Quill Lakes does not require an environmental impact assessment. (CBC)

The Saskatchewan government has decided the latest proposal for diverting water from an area plagued by excess water doesn't need an environmental impact assessment.

But the group behind the proposal says it's still working on getting the permits needed to start the much-debated project.

The Quill Lakes Watershed Association — a group including residents of Mount Hope, Prairie Rose, Usborne, Lakeside, Leroy, Ponass Lake, Spalding, St. Peter, Wynyard, Wadena and Quill Lakes — wants to build a 25-kilometre drainage diversion channel to redirect surface water from Kutawagan Lake and Pel Lake toward Last Mountain Lake, located about 40 kilometres northwest of Regina.

The association says it wants to prevent an uncontrolled spill of water from the Quill Lakes toward Last Mountain Lake, a fear previously voiced by the province's Water Security Agency.

The agency has said that if nothing is done, the lakes could eventually overflow naturally to the Last Mountain Lake area, causing "significant damage" to land and infrastructure.

The association's own proposal comes as farmers in the Quill Lakes area deal with water encroaching on their farmland.

Construction must take place in winter

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment ruled last month that the project does not require an environmental impact assessment.

Based on a number of factors — including "the limited volumes of water proposed for diversion" (7,000,000 cubic metres) — the ministry stated that "significant environmental impacts to the project area or downstream areas are not expected."

That's provided certain mitigation measures are taken, however.

That includes a ministry-imposed condition that construction of the channel only take place between Nov. 1 and April 1 in order to avoid "impacts to sensitive wildlife species potentially utilizing the project area."

Kerry Holderness, the chair of the Quill Lake Watershed Association, says that requirement is not unexpected but will make the project more difficult to carry out.

"It will extremely cause the cost to go up a lot," he said. "And we still haven't determined how much that is because it depends on the winter. If it's a mild winter it might not be so bad. But even accessing materials and all that, it becomes a lot more complicated."​

He added that the association is still trying to meet "all the requirements" with the Water Security Agency before starting work.

'Appears to be general support'

The Ministry of Environment says the association has conducted "extensive engagement activities" with groups surrounding the Quill Lakes and downstream areas.

"There appears to be general support by stakeholders," the ministry wrote.

But some groups have vocally opposed the project.

Last Mountain Lake Stewardship Group has expressed fears the diversion will bring chemicals from agricultural land plus saline into Last Mountain Lake.

Another group worried about the salinity of the diverted water, the Calling Lakes Ecomuseum, said in a press release Thursday that "the removal of the environmental impact assessment effectively removed those of us living downstream from the conversation."

Salinity levels

Darrell Crabbe, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, says the salinity level in a lot of southern Saskatchewan lakes is fairly high as it is. 

"So it's about levels, it's about how much salinity is being added to [Last Mountain Lake]," which is one of the province's major fisheries, said Crabbe. "We're just not sure what the quality of water will be going in and whether that can be mitigated."

It will be, says Wes Kotyk, the ministry's assistant deputy minister of environmental protection. 

"There will need to be controls and monitoring on that drainage channel to ensure that releases of any water meet a certain quality before they can be discharged," he said. "All of those controls will need to be addressed before the project can be approved [by the Water Security Agency]."

Online Facebook forum Friday

A working group made up of people from Last Mountain Lake, Pasqua Lake, Echo Lake, Mission Lake, Katepwa Lake, Crooked Lake and Round Lake is hosting an online discussion with candidates running for the Saskatchewan Party and provincial NDP leadership on a Facebook page called Calling For a Sustainable Quill Lakes Solution starting Friday at 10 a.m. CST.

The NDP opposed a previous iteration of the project, which was scrapped by the Water Security Agency, two years ago.

Saskatchewan NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon called it "a reckless plan to divert contaminated, fish-killing saline/salt water into a world-class spawning grounds at Last Mountain Lake and the Qu'Appelle river basin."

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca