Irrigation: Past, present and future

During the past few wet years, irrigation projects have lost their urgency. Now is the time to refocus

This column has dealt with irrigation many times over the past decades, but this instalment deals mainly with the situation in Saskatchewan.

Alberta is the big irrigation province where irrigation has been going for the longest but it has pretty well maxed out the acres that have water available.

Manitoba irrigation deals mainly with potatoes and assurance of quality as well as yield. Much of Manitoba irrigation comes from groundwater — particularly the Assiniboine Delta Aquifer.

Now, back to Saskatchewan.

The South Saskatchewan River Irrigation District (SSRID) draws water from huge Lake Diefenbaker and is the major irrigated area. Other smaller projects at Riverhurst and Luck Lake and smaller projects also draw from Diefenbaker but the fact remains that evaporation uses more than irrigation.

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The past and present

The first irrigation water spilled from Lake Diefenbaker to nearby farmland in 1968. The area is mainly “lighter” land and had been farmed as mainly wheat and summerfallow for many years. Much of the irrigation was flood irrigation with border dikes and corrugations and a few side role sprinklers were used.

Previous experience showed good crops in good rain years, so irrigation should have provided a good crop every year. But, dryland fertilizer practices provided a low yield even with all the water. That was soon remedied with some research to show what was needed and those problems have long since been solved.

Leaking irrigation canals and excess flood irrigation “juiced up” way too much salinity.

But, in the 1970s quarter section pivots came along and irrigation was transformed from a rubber boots game to a regular farming operation. Along with the pivots came the decommissioning of many leaking canals and pipelines and major repairs on big canals. Some of the newer projects are entirely pipeline and pivot.

Now, the main irrigation areas around Lake Diefenbaker are doing well with sustainable irrigation, cropping and agronomy practices. But what about the future?

The future

On a world-wide basis there are many irrigation projects that rely on groundwater; in some cases the supply is not sustainable. The famous Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains States in the U.S. is the closest example. It is not going completely dry anytime soon, but conservation measures and reduced water use are a big topic of discussion and research in several states.

And, here we sit with a huge lake that evaporates more than we use. There have been many studies in the past two decades looking yet again at large projects to make use of the water and diversify and stabilize agriculture. There is little appetite by either provincial or federal government to take on multi-billion dollar projects. If all the money spent on studies of megaprojects had been used for construction, some smaller projects could now be operating.

My suggestion

My suggestion is to pick out smaller projects that have everything going for them and can be quickly built with a good chance of rapid uptake. The Tugaske area is an obvious choice. A small pipeline/pivot project would not involve a lot of miles and could work.

I often drive by the irrigation project that draws water from Blackstrap Lake, which is fed by a canal from Lake Diefenbaker. The past five years have been “irrigation” years for all farmers in this area so most of the pivots have been a nuisance to farm around. But, 2015 has changed all that and several section pivots have been going around often since mid-May.

Just north of Blackstrap Lake there is a block of land with a larger area of Class 1 irrigation land than anywhere else in the vast area potentially served by Lake Diefenbaker waters. If anything is to happen it better be fast. The area is near Saskatoon and acreages could soon occupy a lot of land and it will not be available for irrigation.

As this column said recently, the time to build an irrigation project is the wet years so water is available when the dry cycle comes along. But, human nature does not work that way. If what we are seeing in 2015 is the start of the next dry cycle maybe we can move fast enough to build a few smaller projects rather than more studies of mega projects.

For all dryland farmers — hope you have been catching the odd shower. The past five years we did not bother to record a 3/10” shower. This year it is something to crow about.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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