Sask. farm and rural groups eye federal spending on broadband, irrigation

The federal government earmarked $10 billion through the Canada Infrastructure Bank on Thursday, partly targeting rural communities and agriculture.

The three-year plan dedicates $2.5 billion to renewable energy, including northern and Indigenous communities,$2 billion for broadband access,$2 billion to invest in large-scale building retrofits,$1.5 billion for agriculture and irrigation projects, and$1.5 billion for the adoption of zero-emission buses and infrastructure.

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Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau said the $1.5 billion for farming aims to irrigate 700,000 acres of land concentrated in the prairies.She said the massive Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project Saskatchewan’s government announced in July “was on our radar.” Bibeau said discussions are ongoing and the infrastructure bank is looking at the project “seriously.”The province announced the $4 billion Lake Diefenbaker project in July. Its goal is to use the lake’s waters to irrigate up to 500,000 acres.

The federal government was looking at irrigation projects on the prairies and aimed to make a significant announcement before the end of the year, Bibeau said, noting that climate change may lead to more droughts in the region, requiring improved infrastructure.

“I think it’s good news for the people of Saskatchewan,” Bibeau said.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said he hopes the irrigation funding will bolster projects like the Lake Diefenbaker expansion.

Broadband is also a key concern for Lewis, who noted poor connections mean rural university students can’t stay on their home farms to attend remote classes this year.

“If we don’t have (broadband and cellular service) we’re going to fall behind,” he said.

Bibeau was unable to say how many of the 750,000 slated broadband connections for homes and businesses referenced in a federal government new release will be in Saskatchewan. At a Thursday news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the broadband money will be on top of a universal broadband fund announced in June.

Municipalities of Saskatchewan president Gordon Barnhart said broadband access remains a “huge issue” for small communities that have been forced to conduct more meetings online; some can’t fully participate.

Barnhart said he welcomes new money, but questioned how it will be implemented. He noted broadband delivery methods range from fibre optic cables to satellites. The former would be difficult to implement in the north, he said.

“How much of that’s coming to Saskatchewan? We can talk broadband, but how is that going to be delivered?”

Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb also noted the potential for the irrigation funding to include the Lake Diefenbaker project.

Funding for poor rural connectivity is also welcome for small communities and farmers, he said, adding “(the) universal broadband fund is the thing we’re still waiting for.""If we don't have (broadband and cellular service) we're going to fall behind."

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