Irrigation mega-project takes next big step

Farmers in southeast back plan for huge expansion of Snake Lake Reservoir

These three pictures from last summer tell a mighty tale of what irrigation can do: On the left, Jason Hale’s granddaughter Blayk stands in a forage corn crop on his Bassano-area farm on June 21; the middle photo was taken July 7; and the one on the right was taken July 21. “It’s amazing how fast this corn grows in two weeks,” Hale tweeted when posting the July 21 photo.
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Farmers in southeast Alberta have given a big thumbs up to a major chunk of a historic $815-million expansion of the province’s irrigation system.

Three-quarters of the 648 producers in the Eastern Irrigation District who voted in a plebiscite last month cast ballots in favour of an irrigation allotment increase that allows a $170-million expansion to proceed.

The yes vote is a big deal, said Jason Hale, chair of the district which stretches from Bow River in the south and the Red Deer River in the north.

Jason Hale. photo: Supplied

“This is a monumental time in our district,” said Hale. “Between passing the plebiscite and the $815-million announcement from the provincial and federal governments, nothing like this has happened in our district since the Bassano Dam was built in 1910.”

Most of the $170 million will go towards a fivefold expansion of the Snake Lake Reservoir which will provide a secure water supply for 50,000 downstream acres, primarily the east Rosemary and Duchess areas.

“Snake Lake is a great project,” said Hale. “It’s going to allow us to take up to 50,000 acres off of river support and put them on a reservoir support, which is huge. It’s just amazing for the district to be able to have that extra water security.”

It will likely take seven years to complete the expansion — with environmental studies, geothermal surveys, Indigenous consultation and other steps taking one-third to half of that time, said district general manager Ivan Friesen.

“We’ve got two or three years of approvals to go through yet before a shovel goes in the ground,” he said. “And then I’m going to say it’s going to be a two-, maybe three-year period of time to build the infrastructure.

“Some of the smaller projects like line projects are well underway today but the reservoir is more complex. The larger structure plus permitting and approvals are going to take some time.”

Along with the reservoir expansion, the district will also replace canals with underground pipes, eliminating water losses from evaporation and leaks.

Not just more crops

Adding up to 34,000 new irrigated acres, providing 50,000 more with secure water, and building more storage capacity will lead to a surge in crop production.

And officials hope that will be a draw for processing plants.

Ivan Friesen. photo: Supplied

“We would love to see industry come to this area,” said Friesen.

There’s already been some early interest, he said, adding he’s not at liberty to say who has been making inquiries.

Leveraging irrigation to attract value-added processing is what prompted the Canadian Infrastructure Bank and the provincial government to put up 80 per cent of the $815 million that will add more than 200,000 acres to the province’s 1.7 million acres of existing irrigation.

“Irrigation-related agricultural processing generates about $2 billion in total annual sales and accounts for about 18 per cent of total provincial food-processing sales,” the Canada Infrastructure Bank said in October when it announced it would be loaning half of the money for the initiative.

“The irrigation industry contributes up to $3.6 billion annually to Alberta’s GDP, which represents about 20 per cent of the agri-food sector GDP on only 4.7 per cent of the province’s cultivated land base.”

More to come

In total, the $815-million plan will see four new or expanded reservoirs along with a host of modernization projects.

Eight irrigation districts are involved, with the initial work to focus on replacing canals with pipelines and using the water savings to irrigate 59,000 acres. (The other districts are Bow River, Western, Lethbridge Northern, Raymond, St. Mary River, Taber, and United.)

They will pay 20 per cent of the costs while the province is putting in grants totalling $244.5 million (30 per cent). The other half is the $407.5-million loan from the infrastructure bank, which has an interest rate of just one per cent and will be paid back over time by the irrigation districts.

So far, the Eastern Irrigation District is the only district to release detailed irrigation expansion plans. As part of the plebiscite (which officially was to raise the cap on irrigated acres in the district to 345,000 from the current cap of 311,000 acres), the district laid out how it will fund its upfront 20 per cent share of the costs.

Owners of land that hasn’t been irrigated will have to pay a $2,300 “capital asset charge” while land that relies mostly or completely on river irrigation would see a charge of $950 per acre.

In an information package for irrigators prepared in December, the district put the average price of irrigated land at $8,500 an acre — more than triple the $2,500-an-acre price for dryland. Even after adding in another $2,250 for the irrigation infrastructure on a farm, the average value of an acre of newly irrigated land will jump by $3,750 — more than enough to cover the $2,300 capital asset charge.

The capital asset charges were key to securing the loan from the infrastructure bank, a federal Crown corporation, said Friesen.

“That was definitely a security that was required with the expansion acres,” he said.

However, the charges will only pay for part of the expansion costs. The rest will come from other revenues.

About the author

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Editor

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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