Water Summit held Monday in Regina

Monday, the Honourable Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, on behalf of the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Minister responsible for Western Economic Diversification Canada, launched the Prairie Water Summit in Regina.

The Prairie Water Summit is led by Western Economic Diversification Canada, working with partners and stakeholders to identify the conditions needed to better manage water and ensure water security across the prairies. More severe, frequent, and costly storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires cause debilitating cycles of too much water and then too little. Lives and livelihoods are threatened. A potential project in south Saskatchewan could become a test case to inform the strategy, and to identify options to address water security challenges in that region. The goal is to support ongoing, coordinated action and transformative measures to promote:

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• economic growth and diversification in agriculture including the growing of food and food processing activities resulting from the Protein Industries Canada Supercluster, mining, industrial, manufacturing, and tourism and recreation sectors;

• community resilience to adapt to increased climate volatility and contribute to social well-being; and,

• environmental sustainability and improved water quality for the benefit of current and future generations, wildlife and aquatic species.

Following are notes for remarks by the Ralph Goodale, to the Western Economic Diversification Prairie Water Summit:

With the relentless and accelerating impacts of climate change, water issues on the prairies are becoming steadily more profound:

What are our prospects for adequate and certain fresh water supplies?

How often will we have severe storms and droughts, and what can we do flood-proof and drought-proof our lives and livelihoods against the damages?

When nature drops a year’s worth of precipitation in 48 hours, do we have accurate models and maps to tell us exactly where all that water is going to go, and when?

How can we improve and protect water quality, and get rid of boil water orders in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike?

Can we have a more effective plan to manage and utilize water for greater economic, social and community development?

And given our accumulated Canadian water expertise, how can we deploy that talent and capacity as a constructive element of Canadian foreign policy in a deeply troubled and water-deficient world?

In the time we have together at this summit, we will only just scratch the surface of issues like these. There will be many more conversations to come. But today and tomorrow are a beginning – to test the scope of our ambition and our will to work together.

Dr. Harry Hill, former director-general of the once venerable PFRA – the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration – once told me there are two basic realities about water that you always have to bear in mind. First, water runs down hill. And secondly, if there’s a man-made boundary line at the bottom of the hill, it doesn’t matter a damn to the water. It pays no attention to jurisdiction, so we have to work together.

I hope our ambitions are large, and so too our appetites for collaboration.  We need to envisage the kind of “big water” conservation, development and management that can truly transform the face of western Canada.

Water is always an issue in our part of the world. We’ve either got too much of it, or too little of it. And it’s almost always in the wrong place. No issue is more contentious, or more consequential.

Our parents and grandparents learned all about that in the Dirty Thirties, a decade of drought and depression when environmental disaster on the Prairies marked them for life. And they always remembered that no commodity – not oil or potash or uranium or grain – none of them is more precious than fresh, clean, flowing water.

Out of the despair of the 1930s, two good things emerged.

One was PFRA, a federal regional agency headquartered here in Regina, which thrived for 75 years as Canada’s most vital centre of knowledge, expertise, innovation, engineering and practical hands-on action for soil and water conservation and development. It was, quite simply, the best in the world – sought after by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and many others.

The second “good thing” from the 30s was the South Saskatchewan River Project, which was built by PFRA.

It took 20 years of argument and planning, and then 10 years of construction. It finally opened in 1967, bearing the names the three political legends (three arch-foes) who made it happen – Gardiner Dam, Diefenbaker Lake and Douglas Park – altogether, an enormous accomplishment.

The dam back then was the largest earth-filled physical structure on the face of the earth.  The lake is 225 kms long, with 800 kms of shoreline. It supplies safe, fresh water to more than 60 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population. It creates unique prairie opportunities for parks and recreation.

It also supplies green hydro power into Saskatchewan’s grid. It help’s both flood-proof and drought-proof the core of the grainbelt. It enables more intensive irrigation farming, value-added growth and rural diversification.

But still, we are utilizing only a tiny fraction of the project’s potential – more water evaporates from Diefenbaker Lake than we actually use. The full original vision for the project has never been completed, because from that massive reservoir in the middle of the province, conduit systems were to be built in all four directions – including to the Qu’Appelle Valley and southeast.

That Qu’Appelle and southeast area is facing ongoing and increasing water quality and quantity concerns, which threaten the social and economic well-being of residents, including First Nations, other communities and industry. Provincial government studies have identified municipalities at potential risk. The cities of Regina and Moose Jaw are among them. The Saskatchewan Water Security Agency has predicted that southeastern Saskatchewan will range permanently from abnormally dry to severe drought conditions.

So, what if we were now to rekindle the idea of linking Lake Diefenbaker to the Qu’Appelle Valley? Sadly, PFRA is no longer available to follow the trail it originally blazed. It was dismantled in federal budget cuts back in 2012. 

Ironically, because of Climate Change, we are probably facing more serious soil and water issues today than those that prompted the creation of the agency in 1935.

In the Qu’Appelle Valley and elsewhere, more severe and volatile weather patterns, resulting in more costly storms and floods and droughts and wildfires are extracting heavy tolls. Across the Prairies in the last six years, the damages have added up to billions of dollars. The insurance industry says that debilitating cycle of losses is only expected to accelerate and deepen.

Are we then condemned to that fate, picking up the pieces and cleaning up the messes after the floods and the fires?  No, in fact we’re not – not if we recognize the threat, and muster the political will to get ahead of it by investing up-front in truly transformational “big water” infrastructure – both engineered and natural – for safe and clean water flows, greater flood-proofing and drought-proofing, and diversified water-based economic and social growth.

I’m encouraged by the number of those who are showing keen interest – the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, irrigation farmers, watershed associations, Indigenous leaders, Ducks Unlimited, the crop diversification centre, the Global Water Institute, the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School, both the UofR and the UofS, the Protein Industries SuperCluster, Clifton Engineering and more.

Over the coming decade, the Government of Canada is planning to invest $180 billion in infrastructure projects of all kinds across the country. They are all important. But few would have the powerful impact of properly linking Lake Diefenbaker with the Qu’Appelle Valley, while permanently fixing water issues for both Moose Jaw, Regina and many other communities on the way by.

It would likely take a combined federal and provincial financial commitment of close to $2 billion. That’s a lot of money. What could be gained in return?

Private sector projections suggest that type of public commitment would unlock more than $10 billion dollars in business investment; billions added to GDP, mostly in Saskatchewan; tens of thousands of person-years of employment; and about 100,000 acres of new irrigation capacity. 

A major water project of this magnitude would be completely in synch with the Protein Industries SuperCluster.  As we become the world’s leading venue for plant protein science, innovation, processing and value added, we also need the capacity to increase production – and that takes bigger and better sources and uses of fresh water.

There is a long way to go to realize a vision like that. But its potential is immense – a once-in-a-generation leap forward. I hope discussions over the next two days will thoroughly explore that potential, galvanize our collective determination to seize it, and build momentum. It’s time to be very bold!

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