Irrigation districts say they’re grateful for provincial funding

This year's allocation is smaller, but there's recognition that 'tax dollars are very hard to come by now'

St. Mary River Irrigation District’s chair says investing in irrigation infrastructure produces a good return for the provincial economy.

This year’s allocation is smaller but there’s recognition that ‘tax dollars are very hard to come by now’

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It was cheque-cashing time for Alberta’s irrigation districts earlier this month as the provincial government announced $10 million in allocations through the Irrigation Rehabilitation Program (IRP) for the 2020-21 budget year.

In place for over 50 years, the IRP is a 75-25 cost-share program between the province and Alberta’s irrigation districts. As its name suggests, it is intended to rehabilitate the province’s irrigation infrastructure.

This year’s sum is down from the $14-million funding allocated under the program in 2019-20. However, the coming two budgets will see $12 million dedicated to the program in both years, bring the province’s total four-year investment to $48 million.

Among the announcements was a $2.6-million grant for the St. Mary River Irrigation District. St. Mary is the largest irrigation district in the country with a 722,000-acre-feet water diversion licence covering 372,000 acres south of the Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

The funding will primarily be used to continue ongoing efforts to replace as many open ditches with underground pipe as possible to improve water-use efficiency, said chair George Lohues.

“We are trying to get as much pipe in the ground as we can rather than having open ditches because with a pipeline you don’t lose any water to evaporation and seepage,” he said. “You also often gain some pressure in the pipeline to assist with pumping. The gravity aspect of the water in the pipeline actually reduces the cost of pumping.”

The array of special crops and processing made possible by irrigation is crucial to the economic success of the area, said Lohues.

“There is a lot of benefit to the economy coming from potato-processing plants and some of the other specialty crops,” he said. “Even the livestock sector is very much dependent on irrigation. That has all had a great effect on the economy in southern Alberta.

“It’s a very stabilizing effect because we always have a crop.”

Although his district’s IRP funding is the same as last year, Lohues said he understands sacrifices have to be made in today’s financially challenging times.

“We have to be aware that tax dollars are very hard to come by now. Even just maintaining funding for irrigation is very welcome and we are thankful for that.”

The United Irrigation District — which supplies 34,000 acres with water from the Belly River and Waterton Reservoir in southwest Alberta — will use its $262,000 grant for a similar purpose.

“The replacement of open ditches and canals with underground piping makes the conveyance of water better,” said chair Duane Nelson.

“(With piping) we lose no water to evaporation or seepage and it allows us in many places to install a closed system, meaning that if the water isn’t turned on it goes nowhere so there is no return flow at the end of the irrigation line.”

Although Nelson said recent IRP grants pale compared to those from several years ago (he added they took a hit after the NDP’s cuts to irrigation funding), his and other irrigation districts would be hard pressed to survive without them.

“We have been told that five per cent of farmland is under irrigation but produces 20 per cent of the food,” he said. “The money invested in the IRP funding stays in Alberta and creates jobs and brings in new industry to process the farm produce.”

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