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Bleak future for irrigation projects

Posted on June 18, 2014 by Maple Creek

The future of irrigation projects across southwestern Saskatchewan is looking very bleak, and farmers and ranchers affected are frustrated.

Seven years after the federal government announced six projects – Consul, Eastend, Lower Frenchman, Maple Creek, Rush Lake and West Flats – would need to be taken over by individual stakeholders or decommissioned, producers affected still don’t have any answers.

They were recently told by the government it will not be providing funds for the decommissioning and clean up.

“They have no environmental plans, no decommissioning plans or anything in place,” said Darrell Ackerman, chairman of the Maple Creek Irrigation Project. “For seven years they’ve basically been doing nothing.”

Maple Creek’s project has been unusable since the June 2010 flood, which destroyed the Gap 2 Weir. The federal government reported rebuilding the weir would cost millions and it was not a viable option. Currently a portion of the project is able to operate from McDougald Reservoir, but Ackerman said it will eventually have to be completely shut down as it will be too expensive to operate.

As it stands, the cost of cleaning up the projects will fall on the landowners, RMs, and the province, without any assistance from the federal government, Ackerman stated.

“They’re just going to walk away from it, and the RMs, the province and the owners are going to be the ones left holding the bag.”

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) reported it has “provided the benefit of these irrigation projects to a small number of agricultural producers for many years… (and) must accomplish the divestiture in a manner that is as cost-efficient as possible.” AAFC stated it will continue its efforts to ensure the divestiture proceeds as smoothly as possible.

If stakeholders did decide to continue operation, the province would require the group to have funds in place for any work needed to be done in the future. While an amount hasn’t been determined, Ackerman said it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.

“We were hoping to get some money from the federal government that we could… put it in the bank and continue to irrigate, but the federal government has said there’s absolutely no money available,” he stated.

Developed by the federal government in 1935, the irrigation projects benefited people during the Depression by creating employment and were also a crucial step in helping farmers through the difficult, dry years. Parcels of land in the irrigation project were sold to individual owners in the early 1950s, while some were retained by the government. Over the years, the land was passed down by families who were dependent on the project for hay production. There are about 40 stakeholders in the irrigation project.

The problem is the agreement made nearly 80 years ago was done on a handshake with no documents signed, Ackerman said. There are no actual water rights, and stakeholders pay for water access. Land deeds included water rights for the parcels of land, but Ackerman said these water rights didn’t exist to begin with.

Landowners are being left with land that won’t have the same value as it did when it was irrigated.

“Now you’ve got a piece of land that is dry and the production on it is going to drop off because of the type of land it is, and you can’t regain your value,” Ackerman said.

While pivots are a possibility for some of the sandier soils, they aren’t an option for the heavy, gumbo soil where flood irrigation was prime, he said.

“There’s not big enough areas to install pivots, and what they’re finding is the soils aren’t conducive to sprinklers,” he explained.

Farmers are now turning cattle out on some of their hay land instead of cutting it this year.

“They’re not going to start equipment this year to go haying,” Ackerman said. “The hay field, it’s that bad. It’s dried up everywhere.”

Federal government employees don’t seem to understand the impact the decommissioning of the project will have on the area, he added.

“A lot of these people are not farmers, not ranchers. They have absolutely no idea what the people out here do. The people out here get up and look at it every day and deal with it every day.”

Each of the irrigation groups spent a significant amount of time compiling a 300-page proposal the government requested detailing what stakeholders deemed the best course of action. Ackerman doesn’t believe they were taken into consideration at all, or even read.

“It’s been pretty unproductive and it’s very frustrating,” he said.

The groups are continuing meetings and communications with AAFC, hopeful for a solution. They have also discussed taking civil action.

“It’s not over by any means,” Ackerman said.

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