SASKATOON -- As the provincial government moves ahead with Phase 1 of its $4 billion irrigation project, Partners of the Saskatchewan River Basin worry about its ecological and environmental effects.

According to the province, the project will draw large amounts of water from Lake Diefenbaker to feed irrigation canals on the east and west side of Lake Diefenbaker and provide irrigation water to 500,000 acres of land.

Robert Halliday is chairman of the board for the Partner’s of the Saskatchewan River Basin, an organization that advocated for the province’s river systems.

Halliday said the amount of water being taken from Lake Diefenbaker to feed the irrigation canals could have adverse effects on the river as it flows downstream to Saskatoon and beyond.

“In Saskatoon if you reduce the river levels it impacts recreational opportunities and all the riparian growth that you see on the riverbank in the city and throughout the basin, that is affected by the changes in water flow,” Halliday said.

“We could see effects on ecosystems and effects on fisheries as the reduced flow takes hold downstream.”

Patrick Boyle with the Water Security Agency said 900,000 acre feet of water are available in Lake Diefenbaker, and at full build out he expects the irrigation project to pull 690,000 acre feet of water to feed the irrigation canals.

“We know we can maintain a minimum flow that will have very little impact downstream,” Boyle said.

In terms of any environmental impacts coming from the project, Boyle said the project is still in its very early stages and consultations, studies and analysis still needs to be completed.

“We’re really before the start of it so there’s going to be a lot more analysis, studies and a consultation done, but we have a clear direction of where we’re going,” Boyle said.

Economic benefit dependent on uptake from farmers

Halliday said the economic upside may not be fully realized if farmers don’t invest into connecting to the irrigation line once complete.

From discussions with farmers in the wake of the project announcement, Halliday said he thinks only a few will benefit.

“The irrigation project if successful would benefit a few hundred farmers but there are 40,000 farmers in this province and how do you do something that benefits the entire farming community,” he said.

“We need some really good numbers on what the take up is from farmers for a project like this.”

When it announced the project, the provincial government estimated the investments will result in a $40 to $80 billion increase to Saskatchewan’s GDP over the next 50 years and provide 2,500 construction jobs over the next 10 years.