Irrigation not forgotten in Bow River flood mitigation agreement

Keeping water levels lower behind the Ghost Dam provides capacity for 
capturing flood waters, but can mean less water is available later on

Water levels behind the Ghost Dam, shown here during spring run-off, are being kept lower from mid-May through early July to provide flood protection.
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While irrigation districts are thankful that drought was considered in a recent flood mitigation agreement between the province and TransAlta, there is concern that more might be needed in order to ensure adequate water is available during dry spells.

The five-year agreement will see TransAlta paid $5.5 million annually for keeping water levels at the Ghost Dam on the Bow River lower from mid-May through early July for flood management.

But the deal will also see the Upper Kananaskis, Lower Kananaskis and Barrier reservoirs used for drought mitigation. If they’re short of water, irrigation districts can ask the provincial government for more to be released from these reservoirs (within the parameters of each irrigation district’s water licence). This aspect of the deal applies year round.

“The deal overall is tremendously positive because it’s a step in the right direction,” said Richard Phillips, general manager of the Bow River Irrigation District.

“The specifics of the deal though — leaving Ghost lower longer — does create extra demand competition potentially during that period of the year where water is starting to get scarce. The amount of water that’s available in Kananaskis (reservoirs) to compensate for that is insufficient to compensate for it.”

However, the government has shown this year that it is flexible with how it will manage water levels.

“They didn’t take Ghost as low as they could have because they recognized it was looking like a drought year with scarce water,” said Phillips. “They wisely kept Ghost higher than they could have under the terms of the deal, and they also started to refill it earlier.

“So that was very positive.”

Although the agreement runs to 2020, it is expected to be extended and be a part of water management in the province for the foreseeable future.

“There’s also the Bow River Working Group that’s going to be advising the government on large big-picture strategies for how to do this long term. We are going to be part of that discussion as well,” said Erwin Braun, general manager of the Western Irrigation District.

This group is looking at strategies that would not only provide flood and drought mitigation, but also create overall economic benefits at the same time. This could be achieved by investing in irrigation infrastructure that doubles as flood mitigation infrastructure.

“All you’re doing with flood mitigation is keeping from having another disaster that drains the local economy,” said Braun. “It drains the provincial coffers, it puts big hits on insurance companies and ultimately insurance rates.

“However, if you are to do this right, and do full water management, we can also increase economic development with increased irrigation revenues. We can show that irrigation in Alberta contributes $3.6 billion to the economy.

“We don’t need more water, we just need to manage this water better. And it’s not a cost to the province, it’s an investment that pays back forever.”

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