Long-term water-management planning yields clear value for producers

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There’s no doubt that access to a supply of quality water is key to the success of any agricultural operation. However, some years, quality water may not be so easy to come by.

Now, more than ever, farmers and ranchers are taking control of the resource by developing long-term water-management plans, geared towards identifying their usage needs through a water-source inventory. The results will help producers preserve existing water sources and weather the challenges of drier years.

“When it comes to water-management planning, it’s all about quantity and quality,” says Joe Harrington, agriculture water specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Many agricultural producers do find themselves short of water or they find that they don’t have the quality of water that their operation needs. The idea is planning ahead and being proactive to ensure your operation has enough quality water for immediate needs and for future needs.”

The first step towards developing a water-management plan is for producers to calculate how much water they need for any purpose, including household use, livestock use and spray water use.

While this may sound straightforward, Harrington says that pinpointing water requirements for an operation can be challenging. That’s why a long-term water-management plan template has been developed.

Although every farmer has different water-usage requirements, the template is generic and will work for any type of agricultural operation. The Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) workbook contains a section on water sources and Harrington points out that long-term water-management planning is a key component of any environmental plan.

“It’s taking a look at their operation, assessing their water needs, assessing their current water supply,” Harrington says. “They look at whether or not they have enough quantity and enough quality and then they can make an action plan to address any shortfalls. That’s really the gist of any planning, taking a look at what you have, what you need and then making an action plan on how you’re going to address any problems.”

Determining normal

He says that operating without a water plan can be costly for any operation. For example, if drought depletes a dugout, cattle producers may be forced to haul water, move their herds or reduce herd sizes.

“If they’ve looked at it and calculated that the volumes they have are barely meeting their needs in a normal year, and they know from experience that they don’t always have normal years, then that’s an indication that they should be looking at expanding their water supply,” says Harrington.

The province’s water act spells out who can use the water, based on environmental considerations, and Harrington says producers can be surprised when they discover how much of the resource they’re actually consuming. However, he adds that the process can spark improvements in water-usage efficiencies, as well as a heightened awareness of environmental considerations.

As a fundamental self-assessment tool, the EFP provides an ideal starting point to developing a long-term water management plan. As the EFP process continues to be refined, producers can expect to see water-management features to become even more of a focus, according to Harrington.

“There’s no question that water management will be a more significant component of on-farm environmental management heading into the future,” he says.

Harrington believes the agricultural industry as a whole is becoming more aware of the value of managing water resources. Cattle are watered away from riparian areas at off-site watering sources such as troughs. It’s no longer common practice to pump water from a well into a dugout in dry years. Producers are choosing to pipe water, rather than develop new water sources. Old water wells are being properly decommissioned so they don’t contaminate groundwater aquifers. Wells are being built to last longer and well-drilling techniques are more advanced, with less environmental risk.

“There’s more understanding now that these aquifers are a limited water resource,” Harrington says. “They aren’t an unlimited supply of water and so farmers are becoming much more efficient in their use.”

More information on EFPs in Alberta is available on the Alberta Environmental Farm Plan website.

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