Irrigation is the elephant in the room

Questions The industry will need to justify why it takes
up 60 per cent of the province’s water allocation

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The new political buzzword with the provincial government is “conversation.” It’s a word hatched by Premier Redford who seems to mention it at every opportunity. In the past we had roundtable discussions, town-hall meetings, public consultations, commissions of inquiry, fact-finding tours — we even had kitchen table talks — but now it’s “conversations” with our government. Of course a new name for the same thing doesn’t mean the government will actually be “listening.”

Civil servants mindful of the political wording predilections of their ruling masters were quick to pick up on the latest catchphrase. That’s why a recent government initiative is being called “A conversation on Water.” It’s going to involve the public at 20 venues across the province, and through online participation by means of a workbook you can submit your views. The government wants to converse with the public about four major water issues, the big one of concern to agriculture is water management. That’s the one that covers irrigation, and it’s the elephant in the room.

Many in the irrigation industry would suspect that the deck is stacked against them in any discussion on water that involves all the other users, particularly urbanites and/or those who have no connection to agriculture. They are the majority, and when those folks are made aware that over 60 per cent of water usage in Alberta is for irrigation, you know that sooner or later questions will arise.

Whether by accident or design, the irrigation elephant is not specifically mentioned in the online workbook or the initiative overview, although some small reference is made to agricultural usage. Much is made of water conservation, clean water, access, pollution, fracking concerns — all noble causes to the public. But I am not so sure that citizens in favour of all that would like to see more of that water go to irrigated production agriculture. The average urbanite is more prepared to pay a price for watching more water flow down a river, rather than watch it go through an irrigation pivot. Therein lies the problem for agriculture and it does not bode well for any future water development for more irrigation in this province. I expect that standing still and being ignored by other water users would be the best outcome for the industry from these conversations.

Another factor in these conversations is that irrigation faces formidable foes, particularly from environmental groups like Ecojustice (the greenwashed name for the U.S.-based Sierra Legal Defense Fund) and the WaterKeeper groups (also U.S. based). Such groups tend to be anti-development and anti-agriculture. Those organizations employ lawyers and lobbyists to pursue their intentions and they have a long history of being successful. You can be assured that their employees and supporters will be making presentations at the public venues and directly to government politicians. If irrigation or agriculture is mentioned by those antagonists it will surely not be positive.

I should mention that the irrigation industry does understand its political situation and the need to lobby for its side and promote the positive aspects of irrigation. The Alberta Irrigation Projects Association did engage in a PR campaign last year, but it was perhaps a little premature and only a modest effort.

In reading between the lines of government water policy, I perceive that future expansion of irrigation is just not going to happen. That would require more dams and reservoirs and in reality that is going nowhere. For significant expansion it would require a transfer of water between north and south water basins. The Alberta government is already opposed to such an idea, no matter what the economic benefits.

A research project by the Alberta Water Council on basin transfer recommended a complex decision-making process that would effectively derail the idea. The study did not address the positive aspects of such a transfer, that being many millions in ag production. The study told the government what it wanted to hear and the water transfer concept is effectively dead.

Interestingly, the transfer study did not include anyone from agriculture nor any significant consultation with the industry. That’s just another example where the irrigation elephant is by accident or design ignored. One notes that the Alberta Water Council, out of 24 members, has only five members that have any connection to agriculture (remember ag uses over 60 per cent of the allocated water).

One could appreciate the quandary the irrigation industry is in. Does it aggressively promote its value to society and play a significant role in the Water Conversations? Perhaps that would alert a naive public as to the actual use of most of the allocated water in Alberta. Then again, maybe it would be best to let a sleeping dog lie, and let the government do what it usually does with “conversations.”

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