Region 6 | Opinion

Is a $4 Billion Irrigation Expansion a Good Investment for Saskatchewan Farms?

by Darrin Qualman, National Farmers Union

The greatest threat to Saskatchewan farms is climate change. The UN projects a global average temperature increase of 3.2 degrees this century (Emissions Gap Report 2019), which would mean 6.4 degrees for Saskatchewan (because warming is proceeding twice as fast at higher latitudes and in continental interiors). That much warming will be devastating, if we allow it to happen. A top priority for farmers must be to ensure that Canada and all nations rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid catastrophic temperature increases.

Thus, we should ask: should the Saskatchewan and federal governments spend $4 billion on irrigation infrastructure? Can this investment really protect a significant number of farms or acres from climate change? Or could the money be better spent on other projects or in other ways? How should we spend taxpayers’ limited dollars?

A $4 billion investment could bring irrigation water to perhaps 500 farms over the next 50 years. It could help farmers irrigate perhaps 500,000 acres—just over one percent of the province’s cropland. But no matter how much we spend on irrigation, the vast majority of Saskatchewan farmland (more than 95 percent) will remain unirrigated—“dryland” acres, vulnerable to climate change and drought.

Alternatively, that same $4 billion could pay for rooftop and ground-mount solar-panel arrays for 100,000 farms and urban homes. Or it could be used to subsidize half the cost for 200,000 installations. Seen this way, the choice is between protecting one percent of Saskatchewan cropland from drought or going a long way toward installing a low-emission, climate-compatible electricity system for the entire province. Given how vulnerable farmers are to climate change, and given the urgent need to electrify everything possible and rapidly move away from coal and other fossil fuels, it seems in farmers’ interests to support broad-based emission reduction rather than irrigation for a tiny fraction of cropland.

Aside from the question of opportunity cost (“what other things could we do with $4 billion?”) there are questions of feasibility. Will a multi-billion-dollar expenditure really trigger a rapid expansion in irrigated acreage? Saskatchewan has significant unused irrigation capacity now, especially around Lake Diefenbaker. This unused capacity exists because farmers have been slow to invest in irrigation. According to data from Saskatchewan’s Department of Agriculture, in the half-century since the completion of Lake Diefenbaker and associated canals and reservoirs, farmers added about 300,000 acres to the province’s irrigated area—an average of just 6,000 acres per year. And rates have been even lower in the past 20 years—around 2,700 acres per year. At such rates it would take decades to fully utilize irrigation potential from Lake Diefenbaker and other existing infrastructure. Moreover, the recently announced $4 billion project would expand irrigation capacity by 500,000 acres. At the rates of recent decades, it would take more than a century to fully utilize that added capacity. “Build it and they will come” may not be good policy.

There are more questions: will the project go over budget, as megaprojects often do? What about interest payments on the $4 billion in government debt? How will low-emission hydroelectricity production in Saskatchewan and Manitoba be affected? What about environmental issues such as downstream flows, effects on the Saskatchewan River Delta, or farmland salination? How much of this project is focused on providing water for potash mines or oil and gas production? Have farmers, communities, and First Nations been appropriately consulted?

Some farmers would like to expand irrigation. But all farmers are highly vulnerable if climate change is not rapidly brought under control and emissions slashed. The question is not whether irrigation expansion is good or bad, but rather how best to responsibly expand irrigation and how best to spend billions of dollars so that farmers and all citizens receive maximum benefit. The best public policy may be to spend tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars to help farmers expand irrigation along existing reservoirs and canals and to spend the bulk of any available billions of dollars on rapid emissions reduction, climate stabilization, and the protection of all Saskatchewan farms and acres from the ravages of climate chaos.

Darrin Qualman is Director of Climate Crisis Policy and Action with the NFU. In November 2019, the NFU published a detailed report on how to reduce agricultural emissions and increase net farm income. See Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis