By Cole Parkinson
Sunny South News
There is plenty to look forward to in the Alberta irrigation world in the coming years.
Richard Phillips, chairman of Irrigating Alberta Inc. and Bow River Irrigation District general manager, was on hand on March 17 in a live streamed event with Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs, and he explained what was happening in regard to the Alberta Irrigation Modernization Program.
“Alberta has 13 irrigation districts in total, ranging from very large to very small. Collectively, we irrigate about 1.5 million acres — three districts get their water from the Bow River, one is from the main stem of the Oldman (River), eight from St. Mary, Waterton, and Belly Rivers, which are Oldman tributaries, and one from Ross Creek in the Cypress Hills. There’s also about 260,000 acres of non-district irrigation occurring in the south Saskatchewan River Basin and much smaller amounts in other river basins,” stated Phillips.
With Canada being one of the few countries that still has the ability to increase food production, Phillips explained irrigation is crucial to that facet. It was also explained to everyone in attendance the districts in Alberta generated $5.4 billion to the provincial GDP with only 20 per cent accruing to producers and eight per cent to the region and province.
“Every dollar the government of Alberta invests in irrigation districts returns over $3.50 in direct revenue to the government. Approximately 46,000 full-time equivalent employment positions are attributable to irrigation districts,” continued Phillips.
Since the program got its start, there have been some ups and downs and they have seen some complications.
“First, the CIB (Canadian Infrastructure Bank) would only deal with a single large entity, they would not deal with individual districts. So, we formed Irrigating Alberta Inc. to satisfy that. The next thing that has caused quite a bit of interest or complications is confidentiality around the negotiation process that we were in and then the finalization of the legal agreements long after the announcement required all of the parties to sign non-disclosure agreements. As a result, very limited communication to the public, which is very frustrating to us, as well to people who would have liked to know more. Still, details of the loan agreements cannot be disclosed.”
Regarding Irrigating Alberta Inc., 10 of the 13 irrigation districts have committed: BRID, Leavitt Irrigation, Raymond Irrigation, St. Mary Irrigation, United Irrigation, Eastern Irrigation, Lethbridge Northern Irrigation, Ross Creek Irrigation, TID, and Western Irrigation.
“The Alberta Irrigation Modernization Program is simply a new funding program. It is not one big project, it is the sum of many large and small projects. Some of the announcements implied that perhaps this was just some big new project and that is absolutely not true — it is a program, not a project. Most of the projects that are being funded under this program involve replacing canals with pipelines and these projects are not designed to convey water to new areas,” continued Phillips.
The government and districts are putting together quite a bit of money to get the ball rolling. The districts themselves will see some upfront costs and a loan on top of that.
“The total program is a $933 million investment. The government’s investment in that is a minor portion of it — 70 per cent of the costs are being covered by the 10 participating districts. We’re paying 20 per cent upfront and then the CIB is loaning us 50 per cent of the project costs, but that is an interest-bearing loan that will be repaid in full by the districts. And then, 30 per cent of the costs are a grant by the government of Alberta, which of course is much appreciated. Any cost overruns (are) covered 100 per cent by irrigation districts.”
Next up for the program is plenty of work that will see improvements made to Alberta irrigation. On the docket is 92 modernization projects, replacement of canals with buried water pipelines (81), modernization of canals (eight), upgrading automation of canal structures, and modernization/replacement of major water control structures.
Benefits of these projects will include water savings, reduction of evaporation/seepage, reduction of spillage, on-farm application improvements, and climate change adaptation. They will also see investment in up to four reservoir projects.
“What I can tell you is that all four of them are off-stream reservoirs. The current land use for all of them is agricultural land and they are on privately owned land, which needs to be acquired by the districts in order to build these reservoirs. Three of these projects have been disclosed already for the reservoirs,” confirmed Phillips.
So far, three of four have been confirmed — Chin Reservoir, Deadhorse Coulee Reservoir, and Snake Lake Reservoir. While a fourth has been decided on, details have not yet been revealed.
“Chin Reservoir, down in the St. Mary River Irrigation District, which also benefits the Taber and Raymond districts, will be expanded under this program. Snake Lake Reservoir up in the EID will be expanded under this program and a new reservoir will be built in the Bow River Irrigation District at Deadhorse Coulee, just south of Enchant. The fourth reservoir location has not yet been disclosed — the district that has that reservoir has reasons for not wanting to make it public yet and we’re respecting their wishes,” continued Phillips.
Plenty of construction is coming for irrigation in Alberta, but there isn’t a ton of time to get everything done. All of the projects coming have pretty firm deadlines and it will be a busy couple of years in terms of construction for the participating districts.
“This project is a pretty tight timeline. All the modernization projects have to be completed by the spring of 2025 — some were started in the fall of 2020 and are already completed, a bunch more were done just this last construction season and wrapping up as we speak. All of the reservoir projects have to be completed by the spring of 2028 and that is really tight timelines, especially for the modernization projects,” continued Phillips.
He also highlighted the fact every project will need to follow all applicable regulatory processes and reservoirs will be subject to significant review as determined by the government of Alberta and federal regulators. Phillips also explained no new water licenses or allocations will be issued.
It was explained to all in attendance that irrigation expansion and the completion of projects could expand the irrigated area within the irrigation district by over 200,000 acres. Phillips also explained no specific areas are designated for new irrigation and that if expansion occurs, it will be throughout the districts as has happened through previous expansion.