Irrigation farmers prepared to stand up for their share

Allocation review None announced yet, but irrigators prepared to respond if one is announced

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With drought affecting more than 80 per cent of the continental United States, water — or the lack of it — is back in the news. In southern Alberta, where more than three-quarters of the average natural flow of water is already allocated to users, irrigation farmers are standing up for their water rights in preparation for any future allocation review.

“There is some movement (by government) towards a water allocation review. How it will happen or if it will happen I do not know,” says Ron McMullin, executive director of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association (AIPA). “We really don’t know if there is a concern. But, you don’t put your head in the sand and say nothing will ever happen.”

While no water allocation review is currently scheduled, if and when it happens, it will be done with significant input from all Albertans, says Brent Paterson, executive director of the Irrigation and Farm Water Division of Alberta Agriculture in Lethbridge.

“I’ve had no indication of any heavy-handed direction of a change in policy without public consultations. But all users, including irrigation users, need to be concerned about the future in terms of their own water demands. I would caution everyone to be very proactive.”

The AIPA has clearly taken the proactive approach to heart. Last fall, it launched a billboard campaign to share the message about the value of irrigated water. Nine billboards around Calgary touted the advantages of irrigated water, from recreational uses (almost all lakes and water catchment areas in southern Alberta are current or past water reservoirs) to environmental benefits (the irrigation district, working with Ducks Unlimited, has restored 82,000 acres of wetland in southern Alberta) to public good (40 Albertan communities’ water supply depends on irrigation infrastructure).

This campaign was in addition to the other ongoing public education initiatives, including presenting portions of the Classroom Agriculture Program for Grade 4 students, participating at Aggie Days in Calgary and Red Deer, and creating a www.thankstoirrigation.com website. “We ran this campaign because we wanted people to know that irrigation provides benefits to them, not just to farmers. Our campaign was not policy based, but it was a little bit policy motivated,” says McMullin. “If we don’t tell our story, no one else will tell it for us.”

Growing industrial demand

At issue is the fact that most of southern Alberta is part of the South Saskatchewan River Basin, an area fed by just three major rivers, two out of three of which have been closed to new water licences since 2006. With increasing populations, higher-intensity farming, and growing industry in the area, all demanding water access, government may have no choice but to review how it is allocating water.

“When government makes a decision, they have to weigh all the aspects. As long as they have a heightened awareness of the overall benefits from irrigation, we hope they will make good decisions,” says McMullin.

Though competition for water is highest in the south, water allocation discussions will need to take place across the province in the near future. “We always used to think of water being an issue of southern Alberta. It’s very clear that it’s an issue of every watershed in the province,” says Paterson. “There have been discussions on the need to engage Albertans on water supply issues throughout the province… I am not aware of a particular time plan for this to take place, but I think it is recognized that it will be an important conversation to have given the increased demand for water, and an increased desire to ensure the environment is protected.”

Irrigation is a significant part of the fabric of society and it goes well beyond producing commodities, says McMullin. “I like to say we’re the lifeblood of southern Alberta. Irrigation was created to bring people here, to make it possible for them to grow things they couldn’t grow otherwise, and to be more assured of making a living. We need Albertans — all Albertans — to recognize the value irrigation has to them.”

Water allocations compared to average natural flow http://envi ronment.alberta.ca/01722.html.

Water use by sector http://environment.alberta.ca/01721.html.

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