New water management innovations needed to meet challenges of climate change in Southern Alberta

By Tim Kalinowski


Southern Alberta is in a good position to continue to grow into the future thanks to a well-managed irrigation infrastructure second to none, says David Hill, director of development with the University of Lethbridge’s Cor Van Raay Southern Alberta Agribusiness Program.

“Southern Alberta has always had a reputation of being a very good manager of water and water resources as its irrigation system developed, as its communities developed,” Hill says.

“We have come a long way from the early days of the 1900s. To where, if you compare irrigation in Southern Alberta to anywhere in North America, and virtually anywhere in the world, we would have some of the most efficient water use, some of the best equipment, some of the best infrastructure that exists anywhere in the world.

“This translates into opportunities for producers as well as sustainability of the system for the future.”

Hill says that foundation is what will ultimately help this region weather the vicissitudes of potential long term climate change and will lead to even greater innovations in the local agriculture and agri-food sectors.

“I am very optimistic about the future based on things we have already learned, and things we have already tried,” he confirms. “So in the future; even though the amount of water we have, and when it’s available, may change, we actually have the infrastructure or the social systems, the ability to talk and collaborate with each other, that will allow us to do much more within the same system. And to be able to adapt fairly rapidly to changing conditions.”

Hill says it is difficult to foresee what may come in terms of these changing conditions; thus our need to be prepared for any type of climate scenario.

“If there is a drought, we know how to tighten up and everybody does a little better,” he states. “Water moves to the highest value crops; all of that happens. When it is a flood, we also react. It’s a little bit different of a reaction, but we are still reacting quickly. Now we have to get from the ability to rapidly react to the ability to rapidly and proactively adapt.

“We are beginning to test ideas before we need them. To bring people to the table to help us think through some of the difficult issues that are going to arise.”

Given water is a finite resource in an historically dry region which must be managed carefully, Hill does not think we will be expanding much beyond our existing irrigated acres in the decades to come.

He does, however, we will continue to gain in efficiency as technology advances and water management practices evolve as a result.

“I think what those acres will produce and what they will contribute to the economy will significantly increase,” he states. “I think to survive globally and economically, and to do the things environmentally they need, there are economies of scale that have to be achieved. And that’s on the production side and on the sustainability side, and so you have to find that right fit. Some producers may do incredibly well with three quarters of irrigation, and be able to do that forever.

“Others may say having three is okay, and we need to rent three, and maybe we need to get four more. I think that will continue to change very much as the market changes.”

He also expects climate forecasting to improve as technology advances, allowing water manager and irrigators to get a quicker read on the water’s ultimate availability on a given year or perhaps even week or month and make more and more minute adjustments as needed.

“I think with the foreknowledge we now have and the experience we are able to make some decisions early in the season about how much water will be available for irrigators,” Hill confirms. “Will we run into a situation where we have a year so dry it is an extreme drought and very low snow at some point? Likely yes.

“But what we have done to mitigate or prepare for them is some of this thinking about the entire system and how we manage such a situation so we cause the least adverse impact. That decision will change based on how severe the issue is.”

Hill says the prospects for Southern Alberta in the years ahead will be determined by the innovations we are just beginning to see today in irrigation and water system management.

“Those technological advances, I think, we will continue to see,” he says. “But what will be really interesting though to observe in hindsight is how quickly these things will be adopted based on the conditions that are happening. What will drive it? Access to water? Efficiency? Will it be energy costs? Will it be labour costs? Will it be, ‘My crop needs this level of precision irrigation to get the quality I need for a global market?’”

And such innovation has never been more important than it is a crouch on the precipice of that uncertain future, he says.

“Without irrigation this region might look a lot more like Drumheller,” Hill states. “Throughout Southern Alberta what water has done primarily for agriculture production is it has allowed communities to grow, businesses to grow, innovation to grow, and I expect that will continue.”