By Trevor Busch
Reviewing implications for the town of a proposed Southern Tributaries Water Sharing Agreement with regional irrigation districts, Taber Coun. Jack Brewin argued that to maintain sustainability enhanced off-stream storage must be an integral aspect of any water conservation efforts.
“We’re talking now about conservation. How many acres have the districts increased in the last 10 years?” asked Brewin at town council’s Jan. 28 meeting. “How many more acres?”
Chris Gallagher, district manager of the Taber Irrigation District (TID), briefly explained some if the local and regional efforts at expansion that have been witnessed in southern Alberta in recent years.
“If you’re looking at the Taber Irrigation District, we had our last expansion plebiscite in 2011, and it was an increase of 10,000 acres. At that time we were at 82,500. At this point, we’re at somewhere around 87,000 acres, so we’ve only increased about 4,500 acres. It’s expected over the next several years a lot of that remaining is going to be taken. There’s been a lot of interest, especially with the announcement of the Cavendish plant, and some rumours of other expansions going on. So there’s a lot of demand for irrigation agriculture.”
Employing a gambling analogy, Gallagher illustrated that the irrigation districts are always attempting to maintain an acceptable level of risk.
“You probably heard very recently Bow River Irrigation District has a large expansion. They have lots and lots of water available within their licenses that they haven’t accessed. It may look like a large expansion, but it’s well within their ability to do that. St. Mary River Irrigation District had their expansion at close to the same time the TID did theirs, and it was a 40,000 acre expansion. But again, the prior time that they did an expansion was a significant amount, 15 to 20 years prior to that — all of these expansions the irrigation district has to demonstrate conservation of water first. We’re not expanding and increasing risk. When we expand, we’re just working our way back to towards what was already an acceptable risk level. We’re playing with house money is the analogy that I would use. It’s a safe bet; we’re not overextending our risk when we expand.”
Seizing on this colourful language from Gallagher, Brewin argued making more water allocations from existing storage and infrastructure without increasing the storage ceiling amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Well, I think your float might be getting a little shy there, because with all these acres that you’ve expanded I don’t see any off-stream storage created, extra off-stream storage. I think the districts, and a whole group this large, have to start considering some more storage for this water. If we keep expanding irrigation acres, now I’m starting to think we have to start conserving this water. We should have done this a few years ago I think.”
While that might seem to be case on the face of it, Gallagher contends that innovation and efficiencies in the changing irrigation industry have actually created increases in existing storage for the TID, rather than any addition of off-stream storage.
“Increases in storage, there have been a few. Not too much in our area that I can think of. Most of the increases in storage have actually been through operational changes and better modeling. There have been some other irrigation districts that have increased reservoir storage. It’s important to understand the distinction between the volume of water that’s applied, and the storage that supports it. It’s almost like turning the clock back. We’re still using the same volume of water, but what’s actually happened is that over time, we’re using less and less and less water. So when you do an expansion, we’re just going back to the same level of risk — and that level of risk, when we do the modeling, includes all the reservoirs as well as all the conveyance systems, all the canals — that’s already considered in the model, and there’s no increased risk.”
Brewin remained hesitant about offering any endorsement of the Southern Tributaries Water Sharing Agreement.
“I appreciate your answer, but I think until we start looking harder at more reserves for water, this expansion to me until we guarantee what we’ve already permitted and can continue to supply them with water, I think the irrigation districts have to look at how much more water they’re allocating.”
Gallagher explained that the TID has always been supportive of any development which would help enhance water storage levels in southern Alberta.
“In terms of that, that’s something I know TID if you take a look back going back many, many years in my experience Keith Francis was a strong advocate of increasing storage, because what that does is get us through the lean years. If you take a look at some basins in the southern States, they’re capable of storing up to four years worth of water. Our system is good for maybe a year and half. We have a different climate and a different risk situation out here. But that’s something certainly anything we can do to support the growth of storage will improve our resilience and our ability to manage.”
Resilience is key for reduced risk, according to Gallagher.
“That’s an important point, too, because this water sharing agreement is not intended to be a replacement for storage. In some ways, we’re letting the Alberta government off easy by putting this type of agreement in place, because we’re not in as bad a risk situation during drought. But we need to continue to remind them as a signatory to this agreement that we’re all advocating for improved storage and good management so that we reduce the risk for everybody.”
Coun. Garth Bekkering acknowledged that the TID is doing what it can to improve water conservation.
“I applaud irrigated agriculture for the huge efficiencies you’ve created in the last 15-20 years with your pipelines, your efficiencies, more accurate measuring of water applied to the fields. There’s a reason for that, of course, because it costs money to put water on the ground.”
TID division 1 director Don Johnson reiterated Bekkering’s comment while pointing out the TID has exceeded its water conservation goals.
“I think one of the things that has to be recognized is exactly what Garth has just talked about, the greater efficiencies. We were challenged a few years ago by the government to increase efficiency by 30 per cent. We’re closer to 40 per cent, so we’ve far exceeded those goals. Part of that is insulation of pipelines. As well, we continue to push — I sit on the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association — and we have in the next month and a half we’re in the middle of some intensive discussions through a formal meeting about reservoir rankings, and giving some direction in terms of expansion.”
In the area of district expansion, Johnson reported the United Irrigation District is currently contemplating increased off-stream storage.
“UID has no storage whatsoever, and they’re proposing putting forward a small reservoir that would assist them in that area, which would benefit the rest of us downstream by having that increased storage as well. So we continue to put that in front of the government, and we continue to advocate as well.”
New developments in irrigated agriculture are making increased water conservation a reality for irrigation districts in the region.
“Not just pipelines, but also the kind of equipment that our farmers are putting on, low-pressure pivots and lower pumping costs with that,” said Johnson. “The ability, through computerization, to be able to control amounts of water on different parts of your field. There’s a lot of progressive things that are being done in that area from our point of view in agriculture to be able to conserve that water.”
By comparison with some irrigation infrastructure in parts of the U.S., Johnson contends Alberta’s irrigation is considered to be at the forefront of innovation.
“We went down to the States, a year and half ago we were down in Yuma (Ariz.), and were surprised they had absolutely no underground piping. In a hot climate like they have, they are all open ditches and open canals. Based on our conversations with the northwest irrigator operator groups in the four northwestern states and southern Alberta, we probably have the most progressive area, both with those guys but also in Canada.”