By Cole Parkinson
The Bow River Irrigation District is heading towards winter in great shape after another dry agriculture season.
With more below-average rains throughout spring and summer, BRID is reporting exceptional levels, so much so that they need to shed some more water before they head into winter storage.
“In terms of water, we are in great shape,” said Richard Phillips, general manager. “The thing I always find amazing is people in our district will hear about how things are looking maybe a little grim in either TID (Taber Irrigation District) or SMRID (St Mary River Irrigation). Of course, at the beginning of the year, they were on a fairly tight allocation because their reservoirs were in bad shape. They assume that we must be in the same boat, which is not true. We have had very high water use here but we are in great shape. We have to get rid of a bunch of water in order to get down to winter levels. Whereas down in the St. Mary’s system, St. Mary Reservoir is well below normal for this time of year. It’s kind of low, Waterton and Ridge are looking okay but overall they are not as full as they would like to be.”
Last year at this time, BRID was heavily into talks around expansion, which was then later approved during late 2018.
With more acres coming on the horizon, the added land would not have been an issue this year if the full extent of the expansion was added to BRID irrigation.
“A lot of new acres were approved in the expansion which was last winter but they won’t be coming on until next year. Had they been all on this year, we still would have been in great shape,” explained Phillips.
Getting more into detail, Phillips highlighted just how great of shape BRID is heading into the middle of September and further into harvest.
“Today’s total storage in McGregor, Travers and Little Bow reservoirs, where all the real water is stored, we are sitting at 350,000 acre-feet. That is a lot of water and to put it into context historically, and by that, I mean going back four or five years ago, the winter level was 316,000. When they finished the Little Bow project to combine Little Bow and Travers into one reservoir, that raised the winter level in Little Bow Reservoir so then we were sitting at about 325,000 acre-feet for our winter target, which is where we were at last year. Today, we are 25,000 above that and this winter they have agreed they will keep Travers and Little Bow four-tenths of a metre higher than they previously had it. It is part of those dams to allow them to go a little higher so I am hoping they will go even higher in the future. For this winter we are targeting 335,000-acre-feet for winter storage,” he said. “We are above that currently and we are taking very little off the river. We are using very little water today so we are just trying to get down to that winter level basically. It is a nice place to be in.”
Even with the high numbers heading into the coming winter, Phillips explained that water usage was still high for 2019. Thanks to less than normal rains again in southern Alberta, demand was high to begin the summer.
“Water-use has been very high again this year, it was an extremely dry year. Once again we are used to extremely dry and it’s been about five years in a row where we have below normal rain. I was looking at Alberta Agriculture’s website for interest, and precipitation from the research station just south of Vauxhall reported total precipitation for this year of 98 millimetres from April 1 to August 31. The average for that period was 2.06 so any time you are half of normal, that is by definition extremely dry,” continued Phillips. “June was our highest water-use month, usually it is July. Not always but on average, July is by far the busiest. When we don’t get the June rains, which we didn’t this year, it really drives irrigation. July use was normal and August and May were just above normal but June was incredibly high. That is the kind of year we had but we are in great shape here at BRID.”
Another reason for the high levels during the season was thanks to rain further west.
“This year there has been plenty of water and we could have diverted far more than we have. Bow River has been really good this year and there have been quite a few rain showers out by the mountains. So even if the snowpack was nothing special, we have had good flow in the river and all the districts have taken all the water that we need and want,” said Phillips.
While harvest is still on the minds of many ag producers in the Vauxhall area, BRID is also beginning to look at winter storage levels.
“Winter levels are really determined by Alberta Environment with those reservoirs. Travers, historically the winter level there is about 2.1 metres below full, it was basically the spillway crest. Once they finished work on the spillway and on the Little Bow dam, we agreed there was potential to go higher,” added Phillips. “I’d love to keep it sort of halfway between spillway crest and the absolute full level in the winter.”
Colder temperatures in the region and the shift to winter also allows BRID to focus on a variety of projects.
While expansion was a major focus, BRID also finished several other important projects.
For this year though, winter work won’t be quite as hectic as BRID doesn’t have the sheer number of projects they had in the past number of years.
“Construction this year is lighter this winter than the last couple. We just finished this spring doing a three-year pipeline project which is a huge pipeline project in the Enchant area which was actually a series of pipelines replacing one entire lateral canal system. We wrapped that up and it was a big pipe and big dollars. This winter is more of the normal scale of things. We are doing a couple of medium pipelines and a little one all out towards Lomond. We’re replacing a drop structure on the main canal southeast of Enchant this year, we did one last year as well. There is one more big drop that we want to replace that will most likely happen next winter so that will be good to have that infrastructure replaced. There will be some comfort knowing we have those critical structures in new condition,” said Phillips, who also touched on expansion. “Expansion is not on the plate anytime soon, and who knows if there will ever be another expansion. That is hard to say. There will be a lot of new parcels coming on next year that was approved and we have been busy working with people getting things done for that. It will be a busy winter with getting turnouts in for those new parcels, and some are on this year but more will be coming on next year.”