Water, water everywhere? Some question true costs of Sask's $4B irrigation plan

The Saskatchewan government's proposed $4 billion irrigation expansion is the most expensive project in provincial history, but some say it's likely to cost taxpayers billions more.

Hydro power losses, damage to Sask River Delta among items not included in government budget, say experts

Questions are being raised about the Saskatchewan government's $4-billion plan to expand agricultural irrigation. Experts say it could end up costing taxpayers far more, and the benefits are not guaranteed. (Don Somers/CBC)

The Saskatchewan government's proposed $4-billion irrigation expansion is the most expensive project in the province's history, but some say it will cost taxpayers billions more and may not bring the promised benefits.

CBC News has interviewed more than two dozen agricultural economists, hydraulic engineers, computer modelling experts, farmers, conservationists and those living downstream, as well as federal, provincial and First Nations politicians. What emerges is a story at odds with the government's surprise announcement earlier this month.

Critics say the government has forgotten — or is refusing to acknowledge — basic financial, legal and environmental principles.

"It's not something that seems realistic," said Saman Razavi, lead researcher on a team at the University of Saskatchewan's Global Institute for Water Security. "They don't seem to be mindful of all the issues."

Solomon Carriere and his family have lived in the Saskatchewan River Delta for generations. He and his wife, Renee, say the provincial government's $4-billion irrigation expansion in southern regions will devastate the delta, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America. (Submitted by Solomon and Renee Carriere)

Government officials and farm groups say the project will change the face of agriculture, will help mitigate the expected droughts and floods brought by climate change, and will easily pay for itself. They also say it will create 2,500 construction jobs, allow farmers to grow cucumbers, potatoes and other high-value crops, and attract big food processors to the region.

"There's a substantial return on that $4 billion to both [provincial and federal] levels of government from taxation in the first 50 years, for sure," said Lyle Stewart, a former Saskatchewan agriculture minister and one of the project's leads.. "And there's a slow payback on this, you know — I recognize that. We all do. But it's a payback that will be there."

Part of the plan includes improving the water supply for people in the Moose Jaw-Regina region, but the vast majority of the cost is for irrigation. 

It's those costs — and the revenue projections — that have Razavi and others shaking their heads. They say the government's math is wrong.

Razavi's team is pioneering the use of artificial intelligence and other modelling methods to predict the economic, engineering and environmental results of altering water bodies. He said no one from his unit was consulted for the project.

Questions about money, viability, strategy

Razavi did his own analysis. According to his data, the project will cause a five to 10 per cent drop in water levels at Lake Diefenbaker and in the South Saskatchewan River. The drop could be as much as 50 per cent in years of drought.

That means at least $2.5 billion in lost power production from the Gardiner Dam site and other stations downstream over the life of the project, he said.

The Saskatchewan River Delta is one of the largest inland deltas in the world, home to large populations of moose, elk, beaver, muskrat and endangered species like lake sturgeon. The wetlands also store carbon dioxide equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million vehicles. (Submitted by Solomon and Renee Carriere)

"The project looks great on paper, but there are many other factors," Razavi said.

Fellow U of S professor Suren Kulshreshtha said the project could work, but he agreed that the $4 billion is only a starting point. 

Kulshreshtha, who helped author a study of irrigation agriculture in the Qu'Appelle region, said the government has only cited costs for the infrastructure and hasn't included the costs to subsidize farmers with transportation, marketing, equipment and water costs. 

Financial carrots will also have to be dangled to attract processors.

"If they only provide water to the farmers and farmers grow crops and nothing else is done by the province, it may or may not happen," he said.

Kulshreshtha mentioned Spudco, the previous government's failed attempt to kick-start the Saskatchewan potato industry through another irrigation plan. He hopes everyone has learned from that experience.

"We had that experience," he said. "People started planting all different kind of crops, but there was no transportation, no marketing, no other services being provided to the farmers. The farmers then turned back to the dry land crops. That's not the purpose of the whole irrigation project."

Cumberland House Cree Nation Chief Rene Chaboyer says he's forming a coalition of First Nations to fight the provincial government's $4-billion irrigation plan. He says First Nations were not consulted on the project, as the Supreme Court of Canada has told governments they must do. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Others, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, have noted there will also be interest payments on that $4 billion loan.

They also point to the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Newfoundland. The government there originally said it would cost $6 billion. Taxpayers have already spent $12 billion and it's not completed yet.

As for the financial returns, there's also no guarantee farmers will grow high-value crops in volumes sufficient to attract processors, Razavi said. In Alberta, only 17 per cent of irrigation is used for fruit and vegetables, according to Statistics Canada. The rest was sprayed on common field crops and hay.

The government doesn't appear to know how many farmers are expected to use the new system, or what type of crops they might grow.

"The precise number is difficult to estimate with producers of varying size along the routes," said Ron Podbielski of the government's Water Security Agency.

Concerns over wildlife, consultation

Razavi and others say all costs — the power losses, the subsidies to farmers and processors, loan interest — need to be considered. Razavi said the government also needs to be more realistic about revenue.

"The economic benefits seem to be exaggerated," he said.

The Saskatchewan government isn't listing the true costs of its irrigation plan, say experts. They say hydro power losses alone from the Gardiner Dam site, pictured, and other stations could add billions to the price tag. (Don Somers/CBC)

The concerns aren't just financial.

Solomon Carriere's family has lived for generations near Cumberland House, Sask., in the Saskatchewan River Delta.
The delta is home to some of the most diverse plant and animal life in North America: moose, lynx, otter and half a million birds. The lush, swampy ecosystem stores more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). That's equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million cars.

Carriere said a five to 10 per cent drop in water volumes would devastate the region, located several hundred kilometres downstream from the proposed irrigation sites.

"We're scared about what that's going to mean to the delta," said Carriere, a world champion marathon canoeist. "I think we're still part of Saskatchewan here, aren't we? I think with such a big project, we feel quite left out. We always do, I guess."

Cumberland House Cree Nation Chief Rene Chaboyer agrees. He said the government failed to consult First Nations, even though the Supreme Court of Canada has been clear that before a major infrastructure project begins, every attempt must be made to obtain free, prior and informed consent from affected First Nations. It's commonly known as the duty to consult.

Chaboyer said he's assembling a coalition of First Nations and will make his case to the government. He said legal action is a last resort, but he isn't ruling it out.

"We depend on the delta to provide our people with natural products like fish, moose, ducks, medicine. We rely on the roots and what it provides for us," Chaboyer said.

"This project doesn't help anything. It's just going to expedite the drying out of the delta and turn it into dry lands."

The Saskatchewan River Delta is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America. (Garth Lenz)

Environmental groups are also asking the province to hit the pause button. They want the federal government to step in, and plan to petition Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

Jordan Ignatiuk, of Nature Saskatchewan, and Gord Vaadeland of CPAWS say there are too many unanswered questions.

"There needs to be proper consultation. We're going to be turning up the heat," Vaadeland said.

Ignatiuk said this seems like old-style politicking in advance of the fall provincial election.

"I mean, it's our government just looking to appease their rural voters to be able to [say], 'Here's a project that's going to benefit agriculture,' and everybody just turns around and says yep, that's a great thing to do." Ignatiuk said. "Then [they] vote for them again, as opposed to looking at the future impacts.

"What is the long-term effect of all this going to be?"


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.