By Heather Cameron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
During the August 15 M.D. of Taber Council Meeting, Richard Phillips, general manager for the Bow River Irrigation District, gave a presentation to Council on the Eyremore Dam Project.
“It would be a new onstream dam on the Bow River, roughly 43 kilometres downstream of the Bassano Dam roughly east of Lake Newell and Brooks,” Phillips said. “The real reason for this project is right now, there’s no provincially-owned and operated storage on the Bow River. And that is a real weakness with the entire Bow River system. Of course, the Bow River is the sole water source for the BRID. The majority of our irrigated acres, of course, lie within the M.D. of Taber. And this would be a big project that would have a big benefit for the entire province in terms of water management.”
The dam, Phillips says, would create a reservoir that floods right back to the Bassano Dam and this project was originally proposed by Calgary Power back in the 1960’s as a hydropower reservoir. The PFRA, Phillips says, studied it in the 1970’s with the primary focus being water supply for the Eastern Irrigation District, which of course takes their water out of the Bassano Dam.
“We’ve been looking at it for the past decade or more with the studies on the Bow River, looking at it as a flow regulation water supply project,” Phillips said. “And in the 2023 provincial budget, they did include $5 million for a feasibility study for the Eyremore Dam, which was a great step forward.”
This project, Phillips says, would provide a better water supply for everyone downstream and it would also supply water for those upstream of the dam. It would allow the EID to take much more water out of the river on a dry day, like almost every day this year has been, and still have a healthy river below the Eyremore Dam, Phillips says, because that would be releasing water to keep the Bow River looking better all the way down to the confluence of the Forks north of Grassy Lake.
“We could take more water off if this project were built and it just trickles on up the river. That positive effect, that would certainly improve environmental flows all the way down to Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan,” Phillips said. “It would really improve our ability to meet our requirements to provide water to Saskatchewan. Right now, when there’s shortages of water, the Old Man Dam really takes the entire hit for that pretty well. By having a new onstream reservoir on the Bow River under the province’s control, the Old Man Dam becomes much less impacted then and more water is then available for development off of it or supporting what’s already there. Certainly, hydropower could be produced here and should be produced if it’s built.”
Phillips states that the dam is truly unique because the Bow River below Bassano is widely considered by many to be a degraded environment, as in dry year there’s not a lot of water left in it. The reservoir, Phillips says, could largely fill through the winter using the surplus releases that are coming out of the system upstream. In the PFRA study, Phillips says, they looked at three options, a low and intermediate and a high option: their low option would just match the water level upstream of the existing Bassano Dam, storing about 600,000-acre feet. The other two, Phillips said, are much larger.
TransAlta, Phillips says, are considering now that the largest option should be no bigger than the small option because that’s big enough, and it may not need to be that big. Something as small as 300,000-acre feet or so, which is the size of the St. Mary Reservoir, would be adequate to do a lot of good but a little bigger may be better.
“We’re hoping that the M.D. of Taber can come on board with some other municipalities that have officially supported this project to the province,” Phillips said. “We’ve had Vulcan County, Newell County, and there may be others that have provided letters to the province. I’m absolutely convinced and, we’ve been looking at this in a lot of studies for years with a lot of computer modeling, this project would just be a complete game changer for improving water management in southern Alberta. So we would hope that the M.D. of Taber could see the value of endorsing this as well.”
Council responded to the presentation by asking if hydropower is still being considered over solar and wind because of its consistency. Phillips responded by saying that when the Old Man Dam was built, hydropower wasn’t built right at the start, but it was added on afterwards. Phillips added that if there’s a dam with water, it should be used to generate hydroelectricity and so, he’s confident that with the Eyremore Dam, there would be no reason not to include hydro. Hydro, Phillips says, is a great offset for the other renewables, wind and solar, because if the wind suddenly stops blowing and all that power is offline, you can fire up hydro faster than gas. Phillips emphasized that in his opinion, hydropower has a tremendous role to play and really helps fill the void when the cloud goes in front of the sun or when the wind stops blowing.
Council also inquired about more information about the amount of water that Alberta has to pass on to Saskatchewan.
“The master agreement on apportionment that dates back to 1969 says that Alberta is obligated to provide 50 per cent of the natural flow in the entire South Saskatchewan River basin each calendar year to Saskatchewan,” Phillips said. “So that is measured where the Red Deer comes together with the South Saskatchewan River, just east of the provincial boundary. So, they get half the water, but there’s another clause in there, and it’s a ‘but’ clause, which says, if Alberta maintains a continuous flow of 1,500 cubic feet per second at the boundary at all times, every second of the year, Alberta is then entitled to use the first 2.1-million-acre feet of water in the South Saskatchewan River, regardless of how little Saskatchewan gets. Now in that case though, 1500 cubic feet per second for a full year adds up to well over a million. So in that worst case, Alberta gets roughly two-thirds while Saskatchewan gets a third. So, we always want to keep that 1500 going unless it’s a bad year. And right now, when the Red Deer isn’t producing much water, or the Bow isn’t, it’s the Old Man Dam that’s called on to make those releases to make sure there’s enough water both for Medicine Hat and to make that obligation to Saskatchewan. And if at the end of the year, the flow is high enough that we’re not entitled to take more than half to give them the full half, and we’re a little short, they typically just run it out of the Oldman Reservoir. So having another big reservoir sitting on the Bow River provides a lot of flexibility that we just don’t have at this point.”
Council then stated resistance from environmental groups on building more dams on rivers meant the M.D. was probably not opposed to giving support for the Eyremore Dam, but they were left with the question of how to get past this resistance as an irrigation district and water users.
“I think as a society, we get by it as we have years like this and people realize that drought is a serious matter and we need to store water when it’s abundant to deal with the effects during a drought,” Phillips said. “I mean, you can’t build a reservoir on-stream or offstream without having some environmental impact. Again, the good news with this one is it will unquestionably improve the environment in the river downstream of the dam site. So that’s a plus. It will of course flood out some on dry coulee banks and environmentally, that’s a negative. But again, you can’t build a reservoir without flooding some kind of land somewhere. I do think that overall, this one probably has lower environmental impacts than many other places you could build it. And again, the fact that it will unquestionably improve the river conditions below is a real plus.”
Council then asked Phillips to expand upon how the Eyremore Dam would increase the aquatic activity.
“If you look at the Bow River today, Eastern Irrigation District is releasing just over 400 cubic feet per second, which is the minimum they can release under their newer license, which is what they want to be using under their old license,” Phillips said. “They could release as little as a hundred cubic feet per second. And in a river the size of the Bow River, that is just nothing. You’re all farmers here. You know a pivot takes two to two and a half cubic feet per second. So, if you can picture the Bow River only running enough water for 40 pivots under the old license that is a terribly low level. So, by having a big body of water stored there, all of the modeling that has been done shows that in these dry years, we could have flows of at least twice that and still have water to spare at the end of the year. So, you’re not going to suddenly have huge flows, but you could on a bad day double the flow easily, which is certainly good for the aquatic environment.”
Finally, Council requested a quick synopsis of what irrigation does for our economy and what the rate of return is.
“The most recent economic impact study that was commissioned to look at irrigation’s impact shows that 4.4 per cent of the province’s cultivated land within the irrigation districts is providing 27 per cent of the value of agricultural products produced,” Phillips said. “It’s most evident when the dry land isn’t worth combining. And, you know, irrigated grains are great, (but) of course, irrigated grains aren’t where the real money is. The real money is in those higher value crops. And irrigation is responsible for 46,000 full-time equivalent employment positions in this province and produces well over $5 billion to the annual provincial GDP. It’s a huge economic driver. Take irrigation away, and Taber would look like Skiff; nothing wrong with Skiff, but it’s better for Taber to look like Taber.”
To conclude the presentation, Phillips stated the more municipalities are letting the province know that they support the Eyremore Dam, and they see the value of it to their municipality, the more likely everyone will see this project built sooner than later.
Council ultimately voted to accept the Eyremore Dam presentation for information. A motion was also made to direct Administration to draft a letter in support of the Eyremore Dam project and address it to the premier, the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, and the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas. That motion was unanimously passed.