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The Saskatchewan government is set to begin work on a $1.15-billion project to expand irrigation, a move Premier Scott Moe says will help fulfill a dream not fully realized.

Moe announced Thursday the province is to start design work and consult with land users about the Lake Diefenbaker expansion project, with construction expected to start next year.

The project would make more water available from the lake for farmers, allowing 364 more square kilometres to be irrigated.

“Our government is happy to take the first major step in creating the most sustainable food and economic security project in Canada which will create major benefits for generations,” Moe said in a news release.

“Saskatchewan can be a leader across the country and move this project forward, which will provide billions in economic benefits and thousands of jobs.”

Moe said costs are to be shared between the province and producers who want to participate.

“As producers come online, we’ll be able to have a formula ready so that they can participate and they will share in part of the program,” he later told reporters.

Lake Diefenbaker was built in 1967 by the provincial and federal governments to supply water for people, industry, power production, flood control and irrigation.

Moe said the lake hasn’t been used to its full potential, and he hopes Ottawa can come on board to help fund the expansion.

“Decades ago, Lake Diefenbaker was built with the specific intention to increase irrigation in this province, and until now I’d say that dream has not been fully realized,” he said.

“We cannot wait for the federal government. We’re going to move forward on our own.”

The project is the first phase in a series to expand the use of water from the lake.

In 2020, Moe had announced the entire project would cost about $4 billion. He said he expects those costs to be much higher now, and it will move forward in a phased approach.

“It’ll literally be acre by acre,” he said.

The premier said the province is doing environmental assessments and is consulting with Indigenous groups about the effects of the project.

Some First Nations and environmental groups have raised concerns more irrigation could negatively affect wildlife if water is moved out of critical areas.

Climate scientists have said Saskatchewan’s summers are expected to get hotter and drier as the climate changes, with water becoming a more valuable resource.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, what the project will provide is not only water security for a higher value agricultural production, but water security for a number of communities,” Moe said.

Aaron Gray, the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association chairman, said in the future it could help farmers grow crops of higher value.

“Irrigators in this province are committed to helping feed the world and create significant benefits for the people of Saskatchewan,” Gray said in a news release.

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