Irrigation report lists value of Alberta investment

Alberta’s irrigation production remains a strong and stable part of the farming industry, says AIDA report

Irrigation in southern Alberta continues to contribute a disproportionate level of profits on cultivated acres, according to a new report commissioned by the province’s association representing irrigation districts.

While irrigated acres in Alberta’s 13 districts represent less than five percent of the province’s cultivated land, they produce 17 percent of gross farm sales from crop production, according to the report by the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association.

“The irrigation sector provides a good, stable part of Alberta’s economy and the sustainability and predictability of it has attracted investment to a significant degree,” said Alex Ostrop, AIDA chair.

That added investment includes several food processors in the area from sugar beets to potatoes.

Along with contributions to livestock, recreation and other direct benefits from irrigation between 2011 and 2018, it has resulted in a more than $5 billion boost to Alberta’s gross domestic product, according to AIDA’s latest report.

Those benefits are set to increase with $933 million investment in irrigation system upgrades from both the Alberta and federal governments announced in the past year.

Those funds will be put toward expanding reservoirs and converting open surface canals to below ground pipelines, said Ostrop.

“We view it as a climate change mitigation project for the region,” said Ostrop of the investments. “We take our role seriously that we have to manage this wonderful resource sustainably and efficiently.”

The expansion will allow the irrigation districts to better manage water access in years of drought while controlling stream flows to help prevent flooding in years of excessive moisture, said Ostrop.

The new investment is set to see more than 200,000 acres added to the province’s current 1.4 million acres of irrigated land without requiring additional water allocations from southern Alberta river systems.

“But it really depends on what savings are attained,” said Ostrop regarding final expansion figures.

The location of those additional acres has yet to be finalized, said Ostrop.

“The expectation is certainly, the vast majority — if not all of the acres — would be going to convert dryland into irrigated land,” he said.

The investment doesn’t come without concerns, however.

The Alberta Wilderness Association said with so much public money invested and acres of land being brought under irrigation, the environmental effect on the landscape deserves some scrutiny.

“It’s not so much there is a very obvious issue or there is going to be a guaranteed problem from the work that is being proposed,” said Phillip Meintzer, AWA conservation specialist. “In terms of actually considering the environmental impacts of the project as a whole, we’re not sure that has happened.”

Considerations of how in-stream flows of rivers might be affected, which, in turn could affect aquatic species and groundwater recharge, two issues for which Meintzer said there is no data.

Southern Alberta has one of the largest unbroken expanses of native grassland, so the impact of expanded irrigation should be considered in that context, he added.

“There could be impacts to native grasslands where any of the construction is occurring or if they’ve approved irrigation acres, we don’t know where those acres are,” said Meintzer. “If those encompass native grasslands and prairies, we have a concern there it may result in the destruction of native eco-systems.”

Ostrop said Ostrup said water diversion is rightfully raised as an issue but the overall goal of the expansion is to continue with the same volumes while adding flexibility to how and when the water is used.

“That flexibility will help us mitigate diversions during the most sensitive time periods,” said Ostrop. “If we have the reservoir capacity in the system, then that will allow us to reduce diversions from the rivers when the rivers are at their most vulnerable state.”

The irrigation districts have mandated requirements regarding stream flows, including that a minimum of 50 percent of the water from the South Saskatchewan River Basin flows into Saskatchewan. Ostrop said the irrigation districts meet or exceed that mandate.

“But I understand where the concern is coming from,” he said.

In addition to the water efficiencies, Ostrop highlighted the irrigation districts and farmers continue to reduce their environmental impact through a growing use of solar to power pivots and pumping stations.

The AIDA report predicts that specialty crop yields will increase in the next 20 years, while the intensive cattle feeding sector capacity could increase by 10,000 head a year over that same period.