Grazing Land To Potato Land Proposal Returns

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A controversial plan to convert a block of publicly owned grassland north of Bow Island to potato irrigation is back on the table, and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development is being criticized for ignoring the advice of its regional land use planning group.

A private deal to buy this land from the government fell apart last November when SLM Spud Farm, owned by the Ypma family, withdrew its offer amid objections from the public, environmentalists and grazing permit holders.

Now, SRD has posted a request for proposals inviting offers to purchase over 16,000 acres of grassland currently in a grazing reserve, but requiring potential buyers to show they have the expertise as well as financial capacity to develop the land as an irrigation project.

Bids on the property opened Aug. 30 and must be received by Oct. 31.

Proposals must describe the project s impact on biodiversity and steps to mitigate biodiversity loss or improve other environmental values. But environmental benefits count for 20 per cent in the proposal evaluation process, with accommodation of graziers providing another 25 per cent.

The plan is at odds with the advice from the South Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Council (RAC), a group of stakeholders appointed by SRD under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. If their proposal is endorsed by cabinet, this land use framework becomes law. The RAC for each area is charged with balancing social and environmental goals with sustaining a growing economy.

The RAC s report has been in the government s hands for several months but has now been released for public comment. It places great emphasis on grasslands, diminished areas that are critical for species at risk and which could have market value for their ecological goods and services.

Following the SRD terms of reference, the report calls for conservation and restoration of landscapes valued for ecological function and biodiversity.

The revival of the land sale is disappointing and inappropriate, says the Alberta Wilderness Association.

A big cross-section of Albertans spoke loud and clear against it, says conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell. If we keep cultivating native prairie we will lose grassland species. We have legal obligations to the people of Alberta and the people of Canada on these species.

Water available

The area up for sale was slated for irrigation when it was originally planned for the region, but the infrastructure was never completed and farms there were abandoned. The idea was revived in the 1980s, but with a similar conclusion.

According to Campbell and others who have surveyed the region, over almost a century it has reverted to a native state. She says it includes healthy wetland and upland habitat supporting many bird species with active nests of endangered burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks, as well as many long-billed curlew and some prairie rattlesnakes. It also provides fawning grounds for the declining pronghorn antelope.

It has been suggested that there isn t sufficient water for the proposed development but irrigation engineers disagree.

The water is available, says Richard Phillips, manager of the Bow River Irrigation District (BRID). It s no great engineering feat to carry the irrigation water from the end of our system where waste water flows into the river and take it across the river to a new area.

Phillips says that in a normal year, the BRID withdraws around two-thirds of its 450,000 acre-feet water allocation to supply irrigation for 230,000 acres, and that efficiency has improved with the use of pipelines instead of open canals.

An 8,000-or 10,000-acre project is big, but it s not a huge development relative to the amount of water we have available.

The BRID plans a plebiscite on expansion within the district this fall. All members of the irrigation district are entitled to vote.

Better uses

Campbell disagrees with the BRID providing water to irrigate grassland.

Irrigation districts have benefited greatly from public funds, she says. In our view, there are much better uses for the conserved water. It would improve the aquatic ecosystems of rivers, especially in low-flow years. We believe that has a higher priority than potato chips.

If we don t value and conserve native vegetation and its biodiversity, it will be a great loss to Alberta society and to humanity.

The Bow Island Grazing Association, which will be displaced by the proposed irrigation development, is not surprised by the return of the plan.

We re not happy, says president Jim Babe of Medicine Hat. But, we re all busy with harvest, so we haven t discussed our options yet. It will affect our livelihoods, making it harder for young farmers to establish cow herds.

Babe sees the development providing low-end jobs, likely for temporary foreign workers. He d sooner see expansion within the BRID where it would benefit existing communities.

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