Irrigation History in Saskatchewan
Prior to the passing of the Irrigation Act of 1894, there were only a few irrigation schemes in operation in the Cypress Hills district. Some twenty streams flowing off the hills led to a number of small irrigation schemes in the Maple Creek area. Most of these were operated by individual ranchers, who diverted small streams onto adjoining hay lands to improve yields for their stock.
Early irrigators did not have the resources or time to construct major diversion works that could withstand the high spring water flows in the southwest, nor did they have the equipment to level their fields for effective flood irrigation. As a result, many early projects were poorly designed and constructed. and few of those diversions survived the high spring run-offs of the early 1900s, when many irrigation works were damaged by flooding.
The expansion of irrigated acres in Saskatchewan occurred over several phases. Irrigated acres grew quickly through the first two decades of the province’s history to reach 10,920 acres by 1920. These developments were a combination of corporate irrigation ventures working to make drylands more attractive to immigrants in the south and thereby increase land sales, and ranchers looking for secure feed supplies for their cattle. Runoff from the winter snowpack caused rivers to swell and irrigation licenses were issued to allow river diversions to provide flood irrigation to fields. On February 27, 1903, the Richardson McKinnon Irrigation Project on Battle Creek was approved by the Government of the Northwest Territories, even before Saskatchewan became a province.
The 1930s and 1940s saw a major slowdown in the pace of irrigation expansion as people left the land in the Dirty Thirties and went to war in the 1940s. Nearly 9,000 acres were added to provincial irrigation during this period, largely by individual private irrigators.
By the 1950s, the full effects of the federal drought-proofing initiatives led by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) established in 1935 with expanded irrigation acreage. Twenty six water storage reservoirs were developed in the southwest and irrigated forage production was encouraged to stabilize the soil and ensure feed supplies of local farms. The return of men from after the war effort, the public discussion, final approval and construction of the South Saskatchewan River Project all led to a rapid expansion of irrigated acres in the 1950s and 1960s, when 61,000 acres were added to provincial totals. Growth of irrigated acres was sustained in Saskatchewan after the completion and opening of the Gardiner Dam in 1967, the formation of a number of irrigation districts around Lake Diefenbaker, and the consequent addition of nearly 220,000 new irrigated acres throughout the province.
Through the 1990s to 2005, the pace of irrigated development again slowed dramatically, falling well below the double digit rates of increase that had prevailed throughout the 20th century to 6% during the 1990s and only 4% between 2000 and 2005.