More crop per drop — irrigation gets ‘historic’ cash injection

New $815-million project will irrigate another 200,000 acres without any additional water allocation

There are a lot of big numbers behind a “historic” expansion of southern Alberta’s irrigation system, but also the smallest possible one — zero.

That’s the amount of extra water that will, or rather won’t, be needed to add more than 200,000 irrigated acres that will be created by a $815-million project, officials say.

“With the savings we gain by becoming more efficient, we can make the service we provide to our water users even more secure,” Dan Shute, chair of the Western Irrigation District, said at a news conference to announce the mega-project.

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There are currently just over 1.7 million irrigated acres in the province, so the expansion will boost that number by nearly one-eighth.

Western is one of eight irrigation districts that are participating in the initiative. (The others are Bow River, Eastern, Lethbridge Northern, Raymond, St. Mary River, Taber, and United.) The $815 million will be spent on four new off-stream reservoirs and 56 modernization projects, much of that devoted to converting open canals to underground pipelines.

The pipelines will be the focus of the first phase of the project (which will provide irrigation to 58,900 acres) with the second phase (covering 143,800 acres) involving new and expanded reservoirs (whose location has yet to be determined) and other works, said the Canadian Infrastructure Bank. The bank is a federal Crown corporation that’s been given $35 billion for joint investment projects with the private sector or groups like the irrigation districts.

The eight irrigation districts are putting in $163 million and will pay off a $407.5-million loan (bearing an interest rate of one per cent) from the infrastructure bank over 35 years. The provincial government is putting in the remainder, $244.5 million, in the form of a grant.

It’s estimated the project will create nearly 1,300 construction jobs and another 6,800 “direct and indirect permanent jobs,” the province said.

Replacing canals with underground pipes will cut water loss from evaporation and leakage — enough to irrigate an additional 200,000 acres in southern Alberta.
photo: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

Officials at the news conference cited figures from a 2015 study commissioned by the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association that estimated the irrigation sector adds $3.6 billion annually to the provincial economy.

“Sales of irrigation crop and livestock products on 4.7 per cent of Alberta’s cultivated land base generated 19 per cent of total primary agricultural sales,” the report stated. “Irrigation sales equated to about $2,400/ha. compared with about $329/ha. for dryland production.”

That report, prepared by consultants with input from university experts, warned that climate change could bring longer, more intense, and more frequent droughts to the province. That, the reported argued, ups the need for irrigation districts “to better optimize water supply and irrigation production during prolonged droughts.”

But the other side of that coin is that irrigated land will become even more valuable.

“Climate change may also lead to more diverse and high-value irrigated crop production and encourage establishment of additional processing industries in the region,” the report said. “The message — that water; land; skilled irrigation producers; and diversified, high-quality irrigation products are available to support value-added processing industries — needs to be better communicated to international food-processing industries.”

The irrigation expansion is just the sort of “high-impact” project that the infrastructure bank was created to invest in, said Michael Sabia, the former head of Bell Canada and the body that invests Quebec’s $330-billion public pension fund.

“This is a project that will grow Alberta’s economy because the value of sales from irrigated land is about seven times greater than dryland,” said Sabia, who became chair in April with a mandate to ramp up the three-year-old infrastructure bank’s investments.

The irrigation sector was overdue for major investment, said Premier Jason Kenney.

“It’s gone for too long without renewal, without new capital investment,” he said.

The province has funded irrigation upgrades since 1969 (on a 75-25 cost-share basis with irrigation districts), but the amounts have been relatively small. The most recent report on the Irrigation Rehabilitation Program says $18.7 million was spent in 2018.

The new project will be more than 40 times larger than that, and it’s a good time for such an investment even though the provincial economy has been battered this year, said Shute.

“Even in tough times, it’s prudent to invest in the future,” he said. “Installing pipelines and modernizing canals with long lifespans will benefit future generations of Alberta food producers and ensure that infrastructure required for stable food production for many decades to come.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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