Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Located sixty miles south of Saskatoon on the South Saskatchewan River, the Gardiner Dam was named in honor of federal Minister of Agriculture James G. Gardiner, who fought for its creation for many years. Construction began in 1958 and the dam was completed in 1967. It is 210 feet in height and 16,700 feet in length. Diefenbaker Lake, the reservoir the dam created, is 140 miles long with a shoreline of about 475 miles; it covers an area of 109,600 acres and has a total storage capacity of 8 million acre feet. At the time of its construction the Gardiner Dam, which cost $121 million, was second only to the St. Lawrence Seaway in terms of Canadian publicly funded projects. A Saskatchewan study in 1996 placed the cost in today's money at $1 billion. It is the largest earth-filled dam in Canada and one of the largest in the world.

The political will that fueled the undertaking flowed directly from the experience of the "dirty thirties." The dam is located in a region described by the explorer James Palliser in 1859 as being unfit for human habitation, an area known for extreme droughts, with crop failures expected three years out of ten. During the 1930s it was the home of Canada's Dust Bowl, when topsoil was torn from its base and carried by prevailing westerlies in huge black masses, leaving the farmlands barren and houses and hedges all but buried. Crops were ruined and farm life was left in disarray. Some farmers were driven from the land and some to madness and suicide. The purpose of the Gardiner Dam was to mitigate the effects of such drought by supplying irrigation as well as providing electrical power, urban water supply, flood control, and recreational opportunities.

Power generation was the first benefit to make an impact. From the moment it went online, electricity generation began to produce $10 million a year in savings. Urban water supply was soon benefiting as well. A secondary dam was built upstream from the main structure to provide a controlled flow by canal running south to serve the needs of Moose Jaw and the capital city of Regina. Other towns and hamlets and several industrial sites are also being serviced, and access to water is placed within reach of 40 percent of Saskatchewan's population.

The main reservoir and a half dozen satellite lakes fed by canals add substantially to recreational opportunities: six vacation villages, twelve fully developed parks, and three major marinas have been established. Flood control is generally a minor consideration, but in years of high river runoff it is crucially important, and in an average year it is responsible for a savings of $44,000 in flood damage by controlling the flow through the dam's spillways.

Irrigation is the most significant aspect of the project. There are now almost 100,000 acres under irrigation, which has resulted in a shift to new crop mixtures, notably peas, fava beans, pinto beans, lentils, grasses, potatoes, rapeseed, mustard, and, in some isolated instances, small orchards. Oddly enough, for this part of the country, there has been a recent move into mint production–a processing plant has been established in the region, with all of its production being exported to the United States, United Kingdom, as well as Japan and other Asian markets. Most of all, the project has in large part eliminated the fear of drought. As one farmer observed, "In the past ten years I have never had a crop failure on irrigated land."

See also AGRICULTURE: Gardiner, Jimmy.

Max Macdonald University of Regina

Fairley, Brad. South Saskatchewan River Basin Study. Regina: Canada Department of the Environment, 1997.

Kulshreshtha, Suran, et al. Social Evaluation of the South Saskatchewan River Project. Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1988.

Macdonald, Max. Oasis for a Desert. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1999.

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