There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the colossal 10-year project announced by the province earlier this summer that’s slated to cost a total of roughly $4 billion and promises to irrigate up to 500,000 acres from Lake Diefenbaker, more than doubling the irrigable land in Saskatchewan.
This is said to be the first steps of a generational project that will “fulfill the vision of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to ensure the prosperity of Saskatchewan people”, according to the provincial government.
Indeed, the prospects look fantastic on paper if all goes according to plan.
Lyle Stewart, Legislative Secretary to the Minister Responsible for the Water Security Agency (WSA) stopped in at the offices of The Outlook last week along with Patrick Boyle, Executive Director with the WSA to discuss the project. Stewart says he was thrilled when the announcement was made in early July and that it’s something that’s perhaps long overdue.
“I was thrilled by it,” said Lyle. “I’ve been a proponent of this for 20 years and a lot of people had been at it for much longer than that. It’s overdue and it’ll be a great thing for the area, Central Saskatchewan, all over the province, and even the whole country as far as food security goes.”
“I think the project is transformational,” added Patrick. “That’s one of the main things coming out of this, and it’s a pretty major impact for Outlook and area here.”
Producers have been pretty happy to see this project start up, Stewart says, and noted that there was a time when it was halted.
“They’re mostly pretty happy,” said Lyle, on producers’ thoughts on the project. “They’ve been waiting for this a long, long time. Work was discontinued on this in 1972, so everybody expected that it’d be restarted long before this, but here we are and we’re finally there. We’re excited and they sure are too.”
Stewart touched on the work that’s being done in Phase 1 right now and explained that some of the prework being done on Phase 2 isn’t that far behind.
“Right now, we’ve set aside $22.5 million to be spent this budget year on pre-engineering soil testing, and that will be not only Phase 1 but Phase 1 & 2,” said Lyle. “We need to engineer Phase 2 so we know how big to build Phase 1 because water has to flow through Phase 1 to get there. The engineering and pre-engineering kind of happen together but after that, we’re going to start construction on Phase 1 first.”
The first phase is estimated to carry a price tag of $500 million and will include the rehabilitation and expansion of the existing Westside irrigation canal system. When all is said and done, it should increase the amount of irrigable land by 80,000 acres in the area. It’s considered one of the most “shovel-ready” irrigation projects in the province, with 90% of the current canal already in place. Communities in the canal system include the villages of Conquest and Milden, going north and straight up to the North Saskatchewan River, Stewart said.
The work will be extensive, but it’s a major part of the project’s beginning.
“We think that it’ll be more than a couple of years,” said Lyle, when asked for a timeline of Phase 1’s completion. “It might be three or four years to get Phase 1 completed. There’s a lot of work to do. There’s a major reservoir that has to be constructed and it’s a big body of water.”
Critics of the massive irrigation deal have said the provincial government should learn from its “past mistakes” when it comes to moving forward on big-ticket projects, with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation comparing it to the infamous Global Transportation Hub development. Stewart and Boyle say to compare the two isn’t a fair shake and that everyone recognizes the power and the value of water.
“It will,” said Lyle, when asked if the project will deliver on its promise to be the ‘single largest project in Saskatchewan history.’ “As far as the critics go, you know, this is one of the few infrastructure projects you’re ever going to see that has an actual payback to taxpayers. It’s a *long-term* payback, but it will pay back and continue to pay back over and over again as time goes on. To see this fully developed, it’ll probably be 50 years; the project will be built in 10. Before the cropping practices evolve, you have to have interest from food processors. You can’t grow carrots unless someone’s going to process them. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg thing; producers will start off growing more conventional crops, maybe adding some soybeans and corn to the mix, but as time goes on and the processing industry learns that this is for real and it’s here, we’ll see processing companies come here – major ones – and want a part of this action.”
“Building a highway is different than building a water management infrastructure project,” added Boyle, touching on the criticisms that have compared the project to the GTH. “For communities to grow and develop, water is a big deal. It’s not apples to apples in any way, shape or form, and it’s pretty different. Obviously, we know that irrigation is a success in this area because the town of Outlook itself is a by-product of what was done 50 years ago.”
Excitement for this project is perhaps the most palpable here in the Outlook and surrounding region. After all, the town of Outlook promotes itself as the ‘Irrigation Capital of Saskatchewan’, so there’s a lot of anticipation over that billing becoming all the more realized in the coming years.
Stewart says Outlook is sure to reap a long list of benefits and the town has the potential to become a central hub of activity during the project’s construction over the next decade.
“I’m sure it’ll happen,” said Lyle. “Outlook is already fairly developed in the irrigation industry, and it’s the logical place for companies to come and support the irrigation industry and processed food, as well as places for employees to live. Outlook is a beautiful town, and it’ll be at least one of the first choices of places for employees that’ll come to the processing plants and service industries that serve irrigated agriculture that they’ll be working for, this is one of the places they’ll want to live for sure.”
The benefits of the historic irrigation expansion has the potential to last generations.
“Oh, for sure,” said Lyle. “Like I said, before we see this thing fully developed, it’ll be generations and then there’ll be generations and generations of payback after that. This is transformational not only to the region but the province, for sure.”
The announcement of such a ground-breaking project shows that we may finally be tapping into the province’s irrigation potential.
“We’re finally making a real substantial start at it, anyway,” said Lyle. “With Phase 1, 2 and 3 and infill that we’ve been supporting over the years in the existing irrigation district, and a number of private projects that are going to be built in other places in the province, we’ll get to our million acres of irrigation that we’ve been wanting in this province since the 1950’s.”
“I think Lyle pretty much covered it,” said Boyle. “The intent of the reservoir at the end of the day was to have 500,000 acres of irrigation out of Lake Diefenbaker. Currently, we’re at around 110,000 acres and I think we can’t lose sight of what the vision was, and that’s where we’re headed. This is another visionary project to move the area ahead and go in that direction.”