By Tim Kalinowski, AG-Matters staff writer
All farmers know there is no guarantee the rains will come at the right time to do the most good to crops. There is no guarantee that the winter snowfall will be adequate to fill reservoirs and provide valuable moisture in the soil. There is also no guarantee the heavenly taps will turn off at the best time to get the quality and the ideal harvest conditions. In a drought year like we have seen in 2015 many dryland farmers were begging for rain that either came too late to do any good, or not at all. However, in irrigated areas, most farmers this year have enjoyed good crops despite the drought conditions. It is this fact says Terrence Lazarus, general manager for the St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID), which proves the overarching benefits of irrigation to southern Alberta.
“There is no doubt in a drought year we have even more of an impact for our farmers. On a year like this we have water availability and we have heat. When you have heat and irrigation, I am expecting this year many of our farmers will have an absolute bumper crop; whereas outside of the irrigation zone it is patchy. Some areas are not doing too badly and some areas are dreadful. There is certainly more consistently good crops within the irrigation district. That’s consistency and guarantee of water is what irrigation brings to the table.”
The SMRID is Canada’s largest irrigation district. It delivers water to over 2000 km of canals and pipelines which spread over 390,000 acres of land stretching from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat. It is also one of Alberta’s oldest irrigation districts, with the first canals being laid down in the late 1800s. The development of the SMRID is intimately connected with early development of the region. It’s a history Lazarus is extremely proud of.
“Originally this district was called the Alberta Railway Irrigation District,” explains Lazarus. “The two were linked: Many districts were set up by the government giving tracts of land to the irrigation districts for the railway companies. In turn they got irrigation on the fields and invited people out to grow crops so that they would have products for the railway lines. Once irrigation was established that got more settlers to come.”
The proliferation of irrigation allows a great variety of crops to be grown in the region that could not naturally grow in such a semi-arid climate. This includes large vegetable crops such as potatoes, beets, beans and corn. Or other plants that do better on irrigation such as sunflowers, alfalfa, canola and flax. The SMRID provides water for major food processing plants such as McCain’s, Rogers Sugar and Spitz. It also supports hundreds of greenhouses and provides many communities and farmers in the area with drinking water.
“We like to feel part of the social fabric,” confirms Lazarus. “We are licensed through the government for multi-use, not just irrigation for farmers. I have been on this job eight months, and I have told people it’s like a dream job. When you start realizing how much real money agriculture provides to the economy it is amazing. Agriculture also underpins so many industries and communities in this area; it trickles down in so many other areas. When I think about that it’s fantastic.”
But the SMRID’s reason for being will always rest with its local farmers, says Lazarus; by ensuring they are getting value out of the system.
“Just recently the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association commissioned a study, and in that study they discovered that it adds $3.00 of GDP for every cubic metre of water delivered to a farmer,” explains Lazarus. “We are the biggest district in Canada by area; therefore to farmers. And, therefore, the biggest impact to GDP in Canada for an irrigation district. We have an incredibly dedicated, efficient and passionate staff. Our local district reps. are out there everyday checking the system and working with local farmers to find out any problems we need to fix.”
Lazarus says with so much responsibility resting in the SMRID’s hands it is extremely important to run the entire system as efficiently as possible.
“The amount of water we take out of the system and put onto fields; we like that ratio to be as close to 100 per cent as we can possibly get. And our farmers have spent an enormous amount of money on modern pivots, and we have seen huge leaps in technology in being able to supply water differently in the fields. It takes something like 6-10 days to get water from the headwater at Ridge Reservoir at the top end of our system to all the way down to Medicine Hat. We have to coordinate the entire thing for farmers making sure things are turning on and off so we can be sure at the end of the system we are not wasting water.”
The impact of irrigation on southern Alberta is startling, transforming an entire arid region into a lush belt of green against the stark, silver-gray of the native prairie grasslands. In a dry year like this one irrigation has literally meant, in some areas, the difference between having a great crop or having to cut grain fields for feed. Lazarus says there is no more fundamental element which dictates the prosperity of a region than responsible control of its water resources.
“Really all policy and all human activity is underscored by access to water. We have seen many empires and cultures in history fall because of a lack of water. Water is definitely the most fundamental thing.”