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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Farmers look to irrigation, a ‘saving grace’ amid local weather woes

‘Moisture, in my thoughts, is the No. 1 driving think about making a crop or not’

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CALGARY — Sean Stanford’s wheat farm simply south of Lethbridge, Alta. falls throughout the far left nook of Palliser’s Triangle — an expanse of prairie grassland encompassing a lot of southeast Alberta, a swath of southern Saskatchewan, and the southwest nook of Manitoba.

The world is called for explorer Capt. John Palliser, who in 1857, famously declared your entire area a wasteland — so sizzling and arid that no crops would ever develop.

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Greater than 160 years later, with components of the prairie provinces struggling via one other summer season of drought situations, Stanford’s farm is actually dry.

“I believe we’ve had three inches of rain since we began seeding. It’s been fairly dismal, truthfully,” he stated in an interview in July.

However Stanford is rising crops, due to a collection of small sprinklers, hooked up to a big pipe and powered by an electrical motor that disperses water from a close-by irrigation canal over a few of his fields.

“Hopefully this fall I’m going to place up a bit of extra irrigation on a pair extra fields of mine,” Stanford stated, including he expects his non-irrigated, or dryland, acres to yield a couple of third of what his irrigated acres yield this 12 months.

“You’re capable of mitigate your dangers much more. Moisture, in my thoughts, is the No. 1 driving think about making a crop or not.”

Drought insurance coverage

The financial system of southern Alberta wouldn’t exist because it does right now with out irrigation. As early because the late 1800s, private and non-private buyers started to construct an enormous community of dams, reservoirs, canals and pipelines that opened the world up for settlement and turned John Palliser’s so-called wasteland right into a viable farming area.

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In accordance with the Alberta WaterPortal Society, there are actually greater than 8,000 kilometres of conveyance works and greater than 50 water storage reservoirs dedicated to managing 625,000 hectares of irrigated land within the province.

And whereas that’s simply over 5 per cent of the province’s whole agricultural land base, it accounts for 19 per cent of Alberta’s gross major agricultural manufacturing. Farmers in irrigation districts are capable of produce high-value, specialised crops comparable to sugar beets and greenhouse greens.

“There are locations that we merely wouldn’t have an agriculture trade if irrigation wasn’t taking place — components of the province are so dry that we wouldn’t be rising something,” stated Richard Phillips, common supervisor of the Bow River Irrigation District, which owns and operates a number of hundred kilometres of earth canals and water pipelines, in addition to a number of reservoirs, within the Vauxhall space southeast of Calgary.

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“We actually wouldn’t be rising the crops which might be being grown.”

In drier-than-normal years — just like the one southeast Alberta is experiencing proper now — irrigation is commonly the one factor standing in the best way of full-fledged agricultural catastrophe, Phillips added.

“If it’s a drought 12 months, dryland produces subsequent to nothing, whereas the irrigated areas are nonetheless producing wonderful crops,” Phillips stated.

“It’s nice drought insurance coverage, if you wish to consider it that method.”

A rising want

In accordance with Agriculture and Agri-Meals Canada’s most up-to-date drought monitor report, 76 per cent of the nation’s agricultural panorama is both abnormally dry or experiencing reasonable to extreme drought this summer season.

Some farmers, relying on the area, are coping with their third and even fourth consecutive 12 months of drought — with 2021 being an exceptionally unhealthy 12 months that noticed manufacturing of some crops in Canada fall to their lowest stage in additional than a decade.

That’s a part of the rationale behind a latest push to modernize and broaden irrigation infrastructure on this nation.

In Alberta, in 2020, the province and the federal authorities via the Canada Infrastructure Financial institution introduced a $932-million undertaking to rehabilitate older irrigation gear within the province, in addition to assemble or enlarge as much as 4 off-stream irrigation storage reservoirs.

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Saskatchewan has additionally introduced a $4-billion undertaking to double the quantity of irrigable land within the province.

Sean Stanford's canola crop near Magrath, Alta., in June 2022. The top righthand corner of the field is on irrigation, the rest dryland.
Sean Stanford’s canola crop close to Magrath, Alta., in June 2022. The highest righthand nook of the sector is on irrigation, the remainder dryland. Photograph by Sean Stanford /Handout

Agriculture Canada predicts that adjustments in temperature and precipitation patterns resulting from local weather change will enhance reliance on irrigation and water-resource administration in years to return — most notably throughout the Prairies and the inside of British Columbia, however “additionally in areas the place there has not historically been a have to irrigate.”

Jodie Parmar, head of undertaking growth for Western Canada with the Canada Infrastructure Financial institution, stated even Ontario and a number of the Atlantic provinces have expressed curiosity in exploring irrigation initiatives just lately.

“Once I engaged in 2020 with provincial governments, in Western Canada particularly, what I heard from them was the necessity to deal with agriculture and agri-food,” Parmar stated.

“And inside that sub-sector, irrigation was their prime ask.”

The boundaries of irrigation

Parmar stated irrigation cannot solely be used to deliver water to areas that don’t have sufficient; it might additionally enhance the utilization of the water that’s accessible.

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With local weather change, for instance, glaciers excessive within the Rocky Mountains are melting earlier within the season — and never on the time of 12 months when farmers really need the ensuing runoff water. With irrigation, the water from these early-melting glaciers might be diverted and harnessed in reservoirs for use for agriculture when it’s truly wanted.

However not everybody believes irrigation can resolve all of agriculture’s woes — at the very least, not with out a value.

Even with efficient water use administration, there’s a restrict to how a lot water might be drawn from a single supply — and a restrict to how a lot enlargement of irrigation the general public will tolerate, stated Maryse Bourgault, an agronomist on the College of Saskatchewan

“In Saskatchewan, (advocates) discuss Lake Diefenbaker getting used for irrigation. However Lake Diefenbaker can also be very a lot concerned in tourism,” she stated.

“So how will most people really feel about us draining Lake Diefenbaker for irrigation?”

Irrigation pivots spraying water on Peace Country farms could become a more common sight if climate change results in more hot, dry summers.
Irrigation pivots spraying water on Peace Nation farms might develop into a extra frequent sight if local weather change leads to extra sizzling, dry summers. Photograph by Randy Vanderveen

Bourgault added that over-irrigating may also elevate the water desk of the soil, and when that water evaporates, it leaves salts behind. She stated in components of the world, landscapes and ecosystems have suffered long-term harm.

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“So I don’t consider (that it’s a resolution),” Bourgault stated.

“I believe sooner or later you’re going to overdo it. Even if in case you have the most effective administration, sooner or later, nature occurs.”

Agricultural lifeline

Irrigation is presently accountable for about 70 per cent of freshwater withdrawals worldwide. In accordance with the Princeton Environmental Institute, about 90 per cent of water taken for residential and industrial makes use of finally returns to the aquifer, however solely about one-half of the water used for irrigation is reusable.

The rest evaporates, is misplaced via leaky pipes or in any other case faraway from the water cycle.

Bourgault stated as a substitute of increasing irrigation, farmers must be searching for to mitigate the consequences of local weather change via improved crop genetics and different farming practices like cowl cropping, which may cut back the quantity of moisture misplaced via evaporation.

Nonetheless, for farmers like Stanford, who’ve spent a lot of this previous summer season anxiously watching heat-shimmering skies for any trace of rain, irrigation is nothing lower than a lifeline.

“If they may get some irrigation acres opened up all the best way to the Saskatchewan border and past, that will be an enormous profit,” Stanford stated.

“To have extra moisture, if it’s not going to rain anymore round right here, goes to be the saving grace for agriculture on this space.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first revealed Aug. 13, 2023.

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