An irrigation pivot over a field of canola near Outlook, Sask. The government says expanding irrigation will boost the provincial economy. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

Western Economic Diversification Canada is recommending the federal government help fund Saskatchewan’s $4 billion irrigation project, saying it will have lasting economic benefits for the province and country.

In a recently published report, the federal department said the project would contribute $85 billion to Canada’s GDP and provide water security in the future as the climate changes.

“We believe that Saskatchewan has an opportunity to harness its agricultural and growth potential for the benefit of all Canadians,” the report said. “Water resources across the prairies can be safeguarded through enhanced co-ordination and collaboration.”

The report comes after the province unveiled earlier this year it wants to embark on the mega project, which is expected to take 10 years to finish and would allow farmers to irrigate 500,000 acres.

The report predicts the project would be in full operation in 30 years. The water would come from Lake Diefenbaker.

Premier Scott Moe has said it would help ensure Saskatchewan’s economy is strong in the future, while also safeguarding communities that will need water in times of drought.

Despite the economic benefits, there are concerns the project could harm the environment. Many Indigenous leaders also say they haven’t been consulted, and they worry about the ramifications.

In the report, Western Economic Diversification acknowledged the environmental impacts are real and important to address.

It said the impacts need to be fully minimized, adding that consultation with Indigenous peoples is important.

A file photo of Lake Diefenbaker. (Jeremy simes/CTV Regina)

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

The federal department outlined a number of figures that show the project would help Saskatchewan prosper economically.

Along with contributing $85 billion to the country’s GDP, the project would provide $20 billion in net tax returns for government.

Citing a study, it said the project would provide 22,700 person years of employment per year once it reaches maturity. As well, it would increase personal incomes by $23.5 billion over the life of the project, it said.

While the government has highlighted the project as a boon for farming, the majority of economic benefits would largely come from potash mining.

Western Economic Diversification’s figures say the net tax returns to the federal and provincial governments would be approximately $20 billion. If potash isn’t included, the returns would be about $6.9 billion.

The returns are based on the assumption that farmers would pay for on-farm irrigation infrastructure.

An irrigation pivot over a field of potatoes on a farm near Outlook, Sask. (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

One of the main environmental concerns is the project could cause more agricultural contaminants to flow downstream, particularly in the Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle river systems.

The report said if runoff isn’t managed properly, nutrients and pesticides from agricultural systems can enter water bodies and cause poor water quality, including algae blooms.

The report said the project needs to ensure environmental outcomes improve over time and that the health of the Saskatchewan River Delta is monitored continually.

It recommended governments study the environmental impacts and figure out what other provinces have done to manage irrigation and drainage.  

As well, the report suggested that water might not be totally available in years of exceptional drought.

It said during such times, irrigators may not receive their anticipated water allocations.

During median years, however, about 31 per cent of all available water flowing into Lake Diefenbaker would be required for the project.

It recommended studying the water balances of Lake Diefenbaker, and figure out what that might look like as the climate changes.  

There have been concerns the project could negatively affect water quality, particularly in the Qu'Appelle Valley (pictured). (Jeremy Simes/CTV Regina)

HOW TO PAY FOR IT

Western Economic Diversification outlined a number of ways the province and federal government could pay for the project.

It said the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which facilitates large capital projects through privately backed loans or investments, is a possible funding source.

As well, the province and Ottawa could seek out industry contributions, public-private partnerships, tax increment financing or a blend of these models.

CROP DIVERSITY

The province has said the project would allow farmers to grow different types of vegetable crops.

The report suggests more vegetables would be grown once the project is complete, but cereals would still dominate acres.

Oilseed production in the area would likely fall, the report said, going from 35 per cent in 2021 to 15 per cent in 2051.

During that same time frame, it’s expected cereals would go from 45 per cent to 30 per cent, pulses would go from 16 per cent to 30 per cent, vegetables from 1 per cent to 10 per cent, and forage crops from 3 per cent to 15 per cent.

The boost in forage production would likely be attributed to the increased number of livestock operations in the area, the report said.

These estimates are only earmarked for the Upper Qu’Appelle Canal portion of the project.