Soil and Crops: Lake Diefenbaker and irrigation in Saskatchewan

While we are swimming in water, many parts south of the 49th parallel are parched. Significant parts of Great Plains agriculture rely on irrigation, and much of that comes from underground.

Drought in the U.S.

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of eight U.S. states. There are 13.6 million acres irrigated in that region. The big three states in terms of acreage irrigated by the Ogallala are Nebraska, Texas and Kansas. (Keen readers can access the reference under the map of the Aquifer to get all the facts you want.)

To put it in a nutshell, the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted faster than the recharge rate. It is a mining process. I see many scientific papers and extension pieces from Kansas and Colorado explaining how to grow slightly less with as little water as possible. Farmers in Northwest Kansas are voluntarily reducing pumping by 20 per cent over the next five years.

A quick look at the current U.S. Drought Monitor map (find it online at droughtmonitor.unl.edu) shows Nebraska and western Kansas in a severe to extreme drought situation.

In a severe drought, crop yield will be in direct proportion to the amount of water that can be cycled through crops. The choices are a switch to short season crops that use less water and innovative ways to irrigate more efficiently. But, in the long run the leading irrigation area in the Western Hemisphere will produce less.

Water in Saskatchewan

Let us come back home to Saskatchewan and Lake Diefenbaker. The Lake is there because of Gardiner Dam, built in the 1960s. In case young folks do not remember, Lake Diefenbaker is there because John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister of Canada. Many folks joke about a Liberal Dam (Gardiner) holding back a Conservative Lake (Diefenbaker)!

But, the fact remains: Lake Diefenbaker is a hugely underutilized resource. The annual water loss to evaporation is more than we use to irrigate.

The South Saskatchewan River Irrigation District near Outlook was built in the 1960s and ’70s. It had many leaking canals and flood systems that predictably salinized much land. Much of it has been converted to pipe and pivot. In the 1980s the Lucky Lake and Riverhurst projects were built as pipe and pivot systems from scratch with no salinity problems.

Since the 1980s there have been no major developments. There has been no political appetite on behalf of either the federal or provincial Governments to invest in irrigation infrastructure. And, like highways, schools, universities and other infrastructure, irrigation does not happen without public input.

In case anyone has forgotten, the Riverhurst and Lucky Lake irrigation projects are there because Grant Devine was Premier of Saskatchewan. Just like the fine College of Agriculture building at the University of Saskatchewan — where I still spend a lot of time — is there because Grant Devine was Premier. (Oops — almost forgot about the Rafferty and Alameda dams on the Souris River.)

Drought mitigation

The Global Warmers talk a lot about the upcoming droughts — although they say it is going to be warmer and wetter. I recently saw an “expert” show tree ring data and say that it was getting drier and Global Climate models to show we were getting wetter. I guess it will be a wet drought.

The only way I know of to “mitigate” drought is to irrigate. And, if the main irrigation project in the Western Hemisphere is slowly running low on water, maybe we should be looking at expanding our capability.

The Prairie Provinces Water Board regulates interprovincial flows. Each province gets to take half of the flowing water and must let the remaining half carry on to the neighbouring province.

Alberta is using most or all of its allotment. There are good reasons why Alberta has been a more aggressive irrigator than Saskatchewan. Alberta has more serious desert conditions. It also has many more cowboys who fully utilize the resource by including livestock in the mix.

Most irrigation projects are conceived in times of great drought. But irrigation infrastructure should be built in wet and affluent times so it is available in dry, hard-up times. Now is the time to start. †

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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