The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration must have been a godsend for the thousands of farmers struggling through the Dirty Thirties.
Established in 1935 during the prolonged drought that earned the decade its name, the PFRA became synonymous with soil and water conservation.
The federal organization played a key role in securing water supplies for farmers, both on their farms and on a larger scale. Emergency programs to dig dugouts and develop long-term projects to ensure continuous water all bore the PFRA stamp.
The agency eventually took the lead on irrigation development on the Prairies, and by 1978 had spent more than $600 million developing water resources.
Irrigation development started well before PFRA was established.
Captain John Palliser’s assessment in 1857 that parts of southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta were too dry to support agriculture was a warning sign to a new country relying on immigration. The federal government was reluctant to undertake irrigation projects because prospective settlers might think the area too dry.
A drought in the early 1890s, however, changed that thinking and the Northwest Irrigation Act was passed in 1894.
According to a history of irrigation compiled by long-time PFRA engineer Harvey Topham, small private irrigation developments had been built before the legislation was enacted but they weren’t financially stable.
“High construction costs and recurring wet years, when farmers refused to pay water rentals, forced the small companies into bankruptcy and convinced the government that irrigation could best be undertaken by major corporations such as railway companies,” Topham wrote.
The legislation declared all surface waters to be the property of the crown. Companies or individuals could access water rights providing they complied with the law. The act provided for an irrigation branch and engineers from the department of the interior conducted extensive surveys to determine water inventories.
Private entrepreneurs and railway companies established the first diversion and distribution projects but couldn’t make any money.
Provinces eventually passed legislation allowing the formation of irrigation districts, and water users took over the works and distribution.
Again, wet years resulted in unpaid irrigation bills and the government had to intervene. Ottawa turned over its responsibilities to the provinces in 1930 but continued to conduct survey work and collect hydrographic data.
That information became invaluable during the Dirty Thirties. Ottawa formed the PFRA in a bid to save farms and farm families.
The initial focus was on securing emergency water supplies, and PFRA engineers soon became irrigation design and development experts.
They worked with the provinces and existing irrigation districts to upgrade and expand distribution systems. They also built dams of various sizes and controlled the accompanying reservoirs.
The PFRA built major projects such as the dams at Waterton and St. Mary in Alberta, Gardiner on the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan and the Shellmouth on the Assiniboine River in Manitoba.
It also established an irrigation farm at Outlook, Sask., in 1949. The Canada-Saskatchewan irrigation Diversification Centre still works on irrigation technology and cropping practices.
Today, PFRA is known as Agriculture Canada’s agri-environmental services branch (AESB).
Its mandate has shifted ,even though it carries the environmental moniker. It no longer builds water infrastructure and is trying to divest itself of the facilities it still owns.
Infrastructure in Manitoba and Alberta was sold years ago, and Saskatchewan’s irrigation works have been up for sale several times since 1961.
In 2007, the organization announced it was serious about getting out of the irrigation business and was again looking for a buyer.
“Nothing from an ownership perspective has occurred,” said Rob
Wiebe, manager of the water infrastructure unit for AESB’s agri-environmental adaptation and practice change directorate at Swift Current, Sask.
About 250 farmers use the ASEB’s five flood irrigation projects in southwestern Saskatchewan. This past summer marked the first time producers administered the projects on 20,000 acres at the districts of Rush Lake, Maple Creek, Eastend, Val Marie, West Val Marie and Consul.
They took over hiring ditch riders to manage water allocation and billing.
Rush Lake and Consul have been irrigation districts under provincial legislation since the 1980s. The other districts formed nonprofit corporations to assume their new duties.
Wiebe said operations in 2009 went well.
“There is grudging acceptance,” he said. “Patrons don’t really want to do this.”
The AESB has said it doesn’t want to own any of the projects by 2017 but can’t yet say what will happen if no one else buys them.
Farmers say that without the AESB, they don’t know how to decide what irrigation should cost and who is liable for the aging infrastructure.
Wiebe said he understands the concern.
“The projects were developed here in the ’30s because there was no forage and no water,” Wiebe said.
“The federal government supported having people stay there.”
Now, the people who have come to rely on the projects say they could suffer adverse economic impacts if the projects don’t last.
Wiebe said the AESB has been assessing the condition of the projects and what it would cost to decommission them.
“If patrons don’t decide to carry on, then we have to know the cost,” he said. “They should know, too.”
The province needs to know as well. Wiebe said if users walk away from the projects, then the province is left holding the bag.
The AESB also owns 33 dams and water control structures in Saskatchewan; 23 of them in the southwest were developed mostly in the 1940s.
Wiebe said there are no plans for this infrastructure until after 2017 but they will remain under federal control as long as the reservoirs are used for irrigation.
Larry Lenton, technical director at the adaptation and practice change directorate, said he expects the AESB to still have a role in water quality, protection, conservation and best management practices.
“Our water and land management strategies play together on the landscape,” he said.
“I still see involvement in water and how we want to protect it.”