A $4B irrigation plan could boost Sask.’s crop diversity. But an expert wonders if farmers will buy in.
Published Thursday, July 30, 2020 1:24PM CST Last Updated Thursday, July 30, 2020 7:01PM CST
SASKATOON -- The provincial government’s $4 billion generational project announced earlier this month presents an opportunity to tackle food security in Canada, and do it in the face of climate change. But will farmers buy in?
That’s a question raised be Jay Famiglietti, executive director with the Global Institute for Water Security at the U of S.
“It takes a lot of water to grow food and I think people often forget how much water it takes,” Famiglietti said.
On July 2, the province announced a $4 billion “generational” project that would divert water from Lake Diefenbaker to irrigate 500,000 acres of farmland in Saskatchewan. Construction for the project is expected to occur over the next decade in three phases.
The first phase is estimated to cost $500 million and will include the rehabilitation of an existing west-side irrigation canal system. Phase two will see further expansion and build-out of the west-side irrigation canal adding an additional 260,000 acres of irrigable land. Once built, the province said the canal will be available to land near Macrorie, Milden, Zealandia and as far north as Asquith and Delisle.
Famiglietti said globally, food-producing countries in the south are running out of water and groundwater supply is being rapidly depleted.
If the province’s plan to grow its irrigable land by half a million acres comes true, Famiglietti said it could lead to some major changes in w pool stock hat’s grown in Saskatchewan.
“If Saskatchewan wants to make that contribution to global food security and wants to greatly expand its food production then this does present that opportunity to produce food,” he said.
Shane Bryan is a dry land farmer with 5,000 acres in the Tugaske region, his operation falls within phase three of the province’s irrigation project which includes a build-out of the Qu’Appelle south irrigation project adding an estimated 120,000 acres of irrigable land, according to the province.
According to Bryan, there’s excitement in the region for this irrigation project, even though phase three is on the tail end of the 10-year project timeline.
“We’re very lucky to have this lake, our forefathers were forward-thinking men and women and they got it done and I think it’s going to help us in the future,” Bryan said.
While he estimates 20 per cent of his 5,000 is irrigable, Bryan said right away, he believes once irrigation pivots are in place, farmers like himself can grow a wider variety of vegetables and help fill the food security gap locally.
“A person will be able to explore different options with cranberry beans, pinto beans, any type of vegetable like onions,” he said. “It opens the doors to a whole lot of possibilities that we can’t even imagine with dry land farming.”
Famiglietti said with the advancements in irrigation technologies Saskatchewan could be a global model on how to expand its food production, using less water and in the face of climate change.
“It is a great opportunity if the public and the province want to move forward with a major expansion of food production than this is a great opportunity to make that happen,” he said.
Will farmers buy in?
Given the magnitude of the project and the projections the province has outlined, Famiglietti said delivery it the water to farmers is only one step of the generational vision.
He said once water is available, farmers need to figure out if it's worth the investment to hook up irrigation systems, and then figure out crop selection.
“If you’re paying more for irrigation water what does that do to your crop selection? What’s going to grow well?”
“It’s up to individual farmers to decide whether or not they want to make the investment in equipment and purchase the irrigation. If the province wants this I think there need to be incentives to encourage farmers to make the investment,” he said.
Famiglietti added if the government wants 500,000 acres of land to be irrigated, it needs to show farmers the benefits of irrigable land.
“We have to encourage the dry-land farmers, who, it’s not part of their cultural heritage to be using irrigation, we have to convince them and show them they’re going to make money, they need to survive.”