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How Irrigation Transformed Alberta Farming

When John Palliser arrived in Alberta about 165 years ago to research the land’s agriculture potential, he came to a troubling conclusion—Alberta land was too arid and was not best suited for settlement.[1] Fast forward to today, and Palliser might be surprised to find that Alberta has become a driving force in the agriculture sector, contributing about 7.5 billion to Canada’s total GDP in 2020.[2]


Palliser wasn’t mistaken in his assessment—southern Alberta and other regions within the Palliser Triangle have encountered droughts throughout history, most notably the Dust Bowl (also referred to as the Dirty Thirties).[3] But Palliser could not have predicted the impact of irrigation which pushed agriculture forward and transformed southern Alberta’s arid land into an agricultural gem.

Centre pivot irrigation system going over a field. (Photo credit: Alberta Irrigation Districts Association)
Centre-pivot irrigation system going over a field. (Photo credit: Alberta Irrigation Districts Association)

“Irrigation changed everything,” says Alex Ostrop, chair of the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association (AIDA) and board member of the St. Mary River Irrigation District. “We grow sixty different crops [and] thirty of them are high value crops. Overall, the impact of that is substantial.”


Before irrigation, farmers were limited to growing commodity crops like wheat, canola, and barley, because they perform well in Alberta’s dry climate. Now with irrigation, producers have the opportunity to farm other crops, such as sugar beets and potatoes. By having more irrigated crops, it allows for the food value chain to stay local, leading to more investments and an increase in local processors.


Home to thirteen irrigation districts, southern Alberta makes up about 70 per cent of Canada’s total irrigation. Irrigated agriculture accounts for about 1.7 million acres of land in Alberta which is only 4.4 per cent of all the province’s agricultural acres. According to the 2021 economic study from the AIDA, those irrigated lands generate eight times more revenue for crop and livestock operations than their dry land counterparts.[4]


“It’s a small sliver of what is being farmed in Alberta, and yet it comprises about 28 per cent of all the agri-food GDP in Alberta—so it’s really punching above its weight,” says Ostrop.


Irrigation has a tremendous impact on Alberta’s economy, contributing $5.4 billion to the province’s total gross domestic product (GDP) and an additional $3.2 billion in labour income while also supporting over 46,000 full-time jobs.[5]


There are numerous economic advantages on a big picture level. But Ostrop, who is also a farmer near Grassy Lake, Alberta, has witnessed firsthand the advantages of irrigation. For Ostrop, irrigation alleviated a lot of stress in the previous year’s dry growing season.

Ostrop's irrigation farm near Grassy Lake, AB. (Photo credit: Alex Ostrop)
Aerial view of Ostrop Farms near Grassy Lake, AB. (Photo credit: Alex Ostrop)

“Last year really highlighted that you can have good seed, you can have good fertilizer, and so forth—but without water, it really doesn't matter. You can do everything right, and it still won't grow [without water],” says Ostrop.


Farmers and producers aren’t the only ones who can reap the benefits. Irrigation also provides services to surrounding municipalities.


“The impact of irrigation goes far beyond just the farmer. About fifty communities in southern Alberta get their water from irrigation infrastructure,” says Ostrop. “The recreational aspects of it are tremendous. When you head west [of Calgary], you head into the mountains and [there is an] abundance of natural water and lakes—but if you go south, there's not a single natural lake there.”


The reservoirs created for irrigation provide recreational opportunities for surrounding communities. St. Mary Reservoir Provincial Recreation Park, Keho Lake Campground, and 40 Mile Park are among some of the many irrigation-based recreational sites in Alberta.[6] Each site has excellent recreational opportunities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and camping. Along with recreational benefits, irrigation reservoirs provide flood mitigation and store water as a supply to rural areas.


Then from an environmental and sustainability standpoint, irrigation infrastructures have allowed producers to adopt various on-farm technologies (such as centre-pivot sprinkler systems with low-pressure nozzles) to conserve and manage water sources responsibly. Beyond the farm, irrigation also helps with maintaining wetlands.


“Without irrigation, especially [in] dry years like last year, all those wetland areas dry up. Outside of the rivers themselves, there are no permanent wetlands. Irrigation allows about 80,000 acres of wetlands to be maintained,” says Ostrop.


The success of irrigation has prompted investment to rehabilitate the current infrastructure. Last year, an investment of $932.7 million was announced by ten irrigation districts, the Canadian Infrastructure Bank (CIB), and the Province of Alberta. Along with a 20 per cent up-front investment from the participating districts, 50 per cent of funds are being made available through a long-term financing agreement between CIB and the districts. The remaining 30 per cent is provided by the Alberta government as a grant to the districts.[7]

On a broad scale, investment in irrigation will benefit the province as a whole—for every dollar invested by the government of Alberta, there is a return of $3.56 in revenue. In other words, there will be a 350 per cent return on investment.[8]


For farmers and producers, this investment will improve efficiency gains on their operations and also allow them to manage the irrigated water responsibly.


The impact of Alberta’s irrigation districts is widespread. Irrigation affects everyone, from farmers, rural communities, and governments to regular consumers.


“The biggest role of the irrigation districts, arguably on a year to year [basis] is to bring water to the communities and to the farmers,” says Ostrop. “But if you take a step back, the larger role is to make sure that the water resource enjoyed by all of us is being managed sustainably for the future.”

 

Sources

[1] The Canadian Encyclopedia — Drought in Palliser’s Triangle https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/drought-in-pallisers-triangle-feature [2] Government of Canada — Overview of Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sector https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/canadas-agriculture-sectors/overview-canadas-agriculture-and-agri-food-sector [3] The Canadian Encyclopedia — The Great Depression in Canada https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/great-depression# [4] Alberta Irrigations Districts Association — Economic Value of Alberta’s Irrigation Districts https://drive.google.com/file/d/1L5VCk3erUoG9tbnefVcSLEwkt4u83FY0/view [5] Alberta Irrigations Districts Association — A 2021 Study: The Economic Value of Alberta’s Irrigation Districts https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KAzte7O1QZXr5rfY50SDuYcySR1wop8u/view [6] Alberta Irrigation Projects Association — Water Fun and Campgrounds In and Around Alberta’s Irrigation Districts http://www.thankstoirrigation.ca/data/documents/waterFunampCampgroundsbooklet-high-res.pdf [7] Alberta Water — Why Alberta Irrigation Matters https://albertawater.com/topics/irrigation/ [8] Alberta Irrigations Districts Association — Economic Value of Alberta’s Irrigation Districts https://drive.google.com/file/d/1L5VCk3erUoG9tbnefVcSLEwkt4u83FY0/view



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