By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
It is well understood that the benefits of irrigation go beyond enhancing agriculture in the dryer regions of the prairies. Irrigation also supports and enhances communities, provides recreational opportunities and sustains industries.
However, in the Eastern Irrigation District (EID), centred in Brooks and extending throughout the County of Newell, the benefits extend even further by helping to provide and subsidized internet service in the most isolated areas of its 300,000 acre zone of operation.
“A lot of our farmers or water users wouldn’t have access to the internet if we didn’t step up to the plate and provide that service,” explains GM Ivan Friesen. “Our members chose to do that, and we now serve about 1,500 users on our system. We do subsidize this internet, but it is to provide a service to our users and give them access to the technology others have.”
For Friesen it all boils fown to one simple conclusion.
“Without us doing it, a lot of people in this area still wouldn’t have internet service,” states Friesen.
Just as the water flowing through its irrigation canals provides the cornerstone of productivity for the land, Friesen feels the signals flowing through the EID’s towers keep local farmers plugged into an increasingly important digital world.
“Obviously the backbone of our business is water. But our mandate as a district is to increase the economic viability of the area, and there is no doubt about it the internet helps do that and helps our farmers be successful. It provides our users not only with the modern day technology but also the information that goes with it. It contributes to our farmers’ success. They have access to the markets, to research that’s on there; basically, whatever you want to learn about to benefit your farm operation is right there at your fingertips.”
Many rural districts continue to lack proper access to the internet in outlying areas in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, and debates about building towers or not building towers, and who should pay for them, continue to rage on unresolved in many regions. Friesen says the EID is fortunate to have the resources available to be able to provide this increasingly essential service to its users.
“The bigger companies that would provide this service in larger markets look at the dollars and cents and they don’t see the value of doing so in outlying areas,” states Friesen. “It just isn’t viable for them. So we built these towers and we still own and operate them. And as a side benefit we also use those towers for remote communication with our automated (irrigation) system.”
Friesen says while water remains the most vital aspect of it operations, the EID continues to seek ways to give back to the region any way it can to enhance the prosperity of all.
“Without irrigation here there basically wouldn’t be a drop of water in this area. When you look at the old history books there was virtually no standing water… In a dry year like last year it’s a huge insurance policy. When it doesn’t rain the farmer can flip the switch and order water. The specialty crops and the things we can grow (in this region) because of irrigation would not exist. There would be no way we could grow those things. We supply water to all the businesses within our boundaries as well. So the economic spin-offs we provide are enormous.”
It is this dedication to the big picture, Friesen says, that has fostered the continuing success of the EID for over a century.
“We are mindful of our use of water. We want to use it efficiently. And we are using it efficiently. We are irrigating three times the land today than a hundred years ago with the same water licence. We grow high quality crops for everybody. We have good quality water. And we are here to support our local communities and the economic viability of our area. It is our board’s goal to keep this area a gem.”