Saskatchewan’s water supply is shrinking. Experts say Scott Moe’s government makes a scary situation worse

Province | Gregory Beatty

Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government has big plans for Saskatchewan laid out in its 30 Goals for 2030. Among them: grow Saskatchewan’s population by 200,000 to 1.4 million by 2030, and expand production of potash, oil, farming, ranching, mining and other resource-based exports.

Last month (March 13), the government made an initial $19 million investment in a planned $1.4 billion project to expand irrigation at Lake Diefenbaker by 90,000 acres.

Lake Diefenbaker is fed by the South Saskatchewan River. Regina and Moose Jaw source most of their drinking water from there, and then the river flows north to Saskatoon.

Since 2010, the government has also greenlit six new potash mines, and others are in development — topped by BHP’s $6.4 billion Jansen mine project in the Quill Lakes area, which is scheduled to open in late 2026.

If all the mines move forward, University of Regina PhD student Yuliya Andreichuk calculated in a 2018 study, the industry would consume seven times more water than in 2010.

With oil, the government is banking on fracking to boost production by 25 per cent by 2030. Again, water is a key component, says University of Regina researcher Peter Leavitt.

“We now have over 10,000 fracking wells in Saskatchewan,” says Leavitt.  “We had about one hundred 20 years ago. They are all super water intensive. The government also plans to increase the population which will be predominantly in urban centres — again, big water sinks.”

If you’re starting to see a pattern here, you’re not alone. Researchers, local governments, wildlife organizations, Indigenous groups, environmentalists and more are all raising alarm bells about the Moe government’s ambitious (and water heavy) agenda.

It all boils down to one simple fact, says University of Saskatchewan researcher Helen Baulch.

“We don’t have abundant clean water sources in Saskatchewan. We’re pretty water scarce, and our water quality isn’t great,” says Baulch.

“We need to [talk about] the best ways of managing that water to maintain [our economy], while protecting our downstream waterways.”

30/30 Vision

West of us, Alberta is battling a multi-year drought that has seen some waterways dry up — and not just in southern areas such as Pincher Creek, either. Northern regions such as Slave Lake are also dry. A recent snowstorm could help, but Danielle Smith’s UCP government recently extended a March 31 deadline to work out a water-sharing agreement with some 25,000 stakeholders including farmers, ranchers, towns and cities, the oil industry and more.

The South (and North) Saskatchewan Rivers both originate in Alberta, says Leavitt.

“Most of the water is snowmelt from the Rockies,” says Leavitt. “But the snowpack has been going down for 30 years. We haven’t noticed it quite as much because the glaciers are melting. But the forecast is there will be no east-facing glaciers in the Columbian Ice Field by 2050.

“So that source of water that is currently maintaining the rivers will stop,” Leavitt says.

Now, “wet” and “Saskatchewan” have never been synonymous — outside of the odd floody period, especially in the eastern half of the province. But as dry as we perceive Saskatchewan to be, the settlement era (from 1890 on) has been one of the wettest in recent history.

Researchers know that from looking at sediments, says Leavitt. When conditions are extra warm/dry, nutrients and ions condense in lakes to produce salty conditions.

“Then you ask the species that live there whether they think it is salty or fresh,” Leavitt says. “We check with the fossil community, and there might be 100 species in the sediments, and if they all say it was salty, it was salty. Or if they say it was fresh, it was fresh. We can go back in time that way — and when we do, we find that virtually every century over the last 2,000 years has been saltier (read: drier) than at present,” he says.

It’s thought temperatures were about two degrees warmer back then, and the effect on Saskatchewan was profound. With climate change expected to bring generally hotter and drier conditions, Leavitt says, we could be on the cusp of a similar change.

“There is evidence that most water bodies under five meters deep dried out,” he says.

“If the forecast is for hotter and drier, and the historical change was enough to get rid of most small lakes — which is what we rely on for water — then the question is ‘What is the future going to look like?” he says.

At the same time as the Moe government is cramming more straws into Saskatchewan’s dwindling fresh-water reserves (slurp!), it’s turning a blind eye to the destruction of prairie wetlands, which play a critical role in conserving water.

The government is working on a new wetlands policy. But it’s been slow going. And signs don’t look good, says Leavitt.

“The current proposal from the Water Security Agency is to drain between 30 and 70 per cent of all wetlands. It plays to a section of the farming community that is irritated by having wetlands that they have to drive around with their machinery.”

Saskatchewan’s indifference to wetlands protection is in stark contrast to its prairie neighbours, says Leavitt.

“Alberta and Manitoba both have no net-loss policies for wetlands. The question is, ‘How can somewhat wetter Manitoba and drier Alberta both have no net-loss policies, yet Saskatchewan can’t come up with a similar policy?’”

Doom And Blooms

Water quantity is only one part of the equation. Water quality is also vital. And wetlands play a critical role there too, says Baulch.

“The key issue we see in our lakes in summer is algae blooms. It’s related to temperature, as many lakes are shallow, and tend to get warm. They also tend to be nutrient rich, and there are a lot of actions we do that increase those nutrient loads,” Baulch says.

Fertilizer run-off from large-scale farming operations is a huge nutrient source, spawning toxic algae blooms that foul lakes, deplete oxygen in the water and lead to massive fish-kills.

“The most important function of wetlands is holding the water,” says Baulch. “Fewer wetlands equate to higher flows and greater flood risk. And nutrient loads are very much related to that flow,” says Baulch.

“We need to do our absolute best to keep nutrients on the land. But the challenge with our lakes is they are just so incredibly sensitive to nutrients. It’s not like farmers are doing a bad job, they’re usually doing a good job. But it just takes a tiny amount to have a big impact on a downstream ecosystem,” she says.

Right now, Saskatchewan is drainage central with its lack of a wetlands policy. In the Quill Lakes region alone, Ducks Unlimited estimates 10,000 kilometres of illegal drainage has been done — sparking conflicts with downstream producers and communities that are suffering damage from flooding and increased nutrient loads.

“The whole lake chain around Fort Qu’Appelle has some significant water quality issues too,” says Baulch [see sidebar].

“We need to understand the trade-offs involved. Certainly, irrigation would really help producers in these drought conditions. But we need to understand the impact it may have on water quality.

“Hopefully, some of this is occurring. But there are layers of questions we need to look at,” she says.

Is the Moe government up to the task? Based on what he’s seen so far, Leavitt isn’t sure.

“The government’s attitude is very close to a traditional religious mindset. ‘God put it here for us. It’s ours to use as we see fit. There aren’t any other species, or any other concerns. It will all work out,’” he says.

“Nothing else enters into that mindset. The challenge is, what do we want Saskatchewan to look like going forward? And how will we accommodate the diverse demands for water?

We don’t have enough for everything,” says Leavitt.


A Bad Idea Top to Bottom

In July 2015, Regina — in puppy terms — had an accident. It came during a “stalled” weather event, when the City had to discharge raw sewage into the Wascana Creek system, forcing downstream communities to issue water advisories and close beaches.

The incident sparked a group of volunteers in Fort Qu’Appelle to form Calling Lakes Eco Museum, says Aura Lee MacPherson.

“We had a public meeting, and the University of Regina came out which connected us with water and climate researchers like Peter Leavitt and David Sauchyn,” MacPherson recalls.

“Community confidence is based on science,” she says. “That’s why we get frustrated with the Water Security Agency and our provincial government — it seems to us that the decisions they make aren’t based on science. It’s putting a lot of people at risk.”

Calling Lakes is part of a loose province-wide network of individuals, communities and organizations who are concerned about the government’s much-delayed wetlands policy.

“There are so many red flags,” says MacPherson.

“They first of all don’t believe in climate change or the climate crisis,” she says. “And they seem to be making decisions based on historical data rather than using climate change modelling. It’s a myopic view, and it’s very concerning.”   

In 2021, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipality Association passed a resolution supporting the development of a wetlands policy. “I think 170 communities voted for it because they are getting hammered with infrastructure damage from erosion,” says MacPherson. “Removing wetlands pushes water off the land rather than holding it, and that damages our roads and culverts.”

Groundwater in underground aquifers is no less precious a resource than surface water. And wetlands play an important role in replenishing them, too.

Ironically, at the same time as the Moe government is signing off on wetlands destruction, it’s eyeing Saskatchewan’s aquifers as a water source for industrial activity.

Again, the shrinking water supply/greater demand math doesn’t add up.

Consider the famed Ogallala Aquifer in the U.S. Central Plains. It’s larger than Lake Superior and is being depleted at the rate of a metre a year — but is only being replenished at three millimetres a year. That’s a 330-to-1 imbalance.

“The damage we’re doing to wetlands has a massive ripple effect,” says MacPherson, who praises Saskatoon NDP MLA Erika Ritchie for putting forward a private members bill to protect wetlands.

“We’re really impressed with the bill, and the consultation she did,” MacPherson says.

“The WSA had promised a new wetlands policy by spring. Now, it’s been bumped until after the election because it’s such a hot topic. Erika’s bill is generating some good discussion. But there’s no way it will pass, the Sask. Party won’t let that happen,” says MacPherson.

Peter Leavitt is equally blunt in his assessment.

“The WSA is making a show of consultation, but it’s more theatre than sincere,” he says.

“They’ve been getting similar information from all the scientists they’ve consulted, as well as their own blue-ribbon panel that issued a 650-page report basically saying this was a bad idea top to bottom,” says Leavitt.