It’s about time the Prairies took irrigation off its to-do list

Irrigation expansion has its friends and foes. It doesn’t favour every farmer or segment of the industry or society equally. It picks regional winners and losers and requires all to share in some of the costs.

Producers and municipalities in irrigatable areas generally pick up the lion’s shares of operations, but the expense isn’t exclusively theirs — and neither are all of the benefits.

At The Western Producer, we’ve been in favour of irrigation in Western Canada for a while now, say, about 98 years. Our editorial opinions have varied slightly, but, in general, this news organization has expressed the opinion that the good it does for western Canadian agriculture and society outweighs the bad.

We have written many editorials about projects from British Columbia to the Ontario border over the years. Today, there are about 450,000 irrigated acres in B.C., 1.55 million in Alberta, 80,000 in Manitoba, and, for now, 330,000 in Saskatchewan.

An editorial from April 6, 1967, stands out as being an appropriate backstory when considering the recent announcement of a $4 billion, 500,000 acre project to complete something that was begun that year. It also reminds us how much some things in agricultural life haven’t changed.

“In principle, The Western Producer has always been in favour of the conservation and optimum use of water in this dry prairie region, and we were just as pleased as the next when the final decision was made to go ahead with the South Saskatchewan development. We have always had one important reservation, however. Simply stated, it was that no part of the cost of development should be chargeable to agriculture unless and until it could be shown that the earnings of agriculture were such that they could stand the extra costs of irrigation,” we wrote then.

And when it came to whether the whole development, as planned and announced in 1966 and 1967, we were not then convinced the Westside part of the project would be completed if area farmers were expected to pay for it exclusively through water levies and infrastructure taxes.

“Other areas of the western part of the development are in far greater need of supplementary water (than the first area irrigated). But in order to reach them, an expensive pumping operation would be necessary. It is likely that the more arid area (toward Rosetown and Saskatoon), on the basis of high costs of getting water to it, will not see irrigation development for years to come.” It took longer than we might have imagined.

Irrigated land can operate on the Prairies at a profit, but as you can read in our Page 1 feature this week, incremental costs have a way of dissolving producers’ margins.

Irrigated land in Alberta generates about $3.5 billion of that province’s agricultural gross returns annually, about 20 percent of the total, and does this on just five percent of arable acres. Every cubic metre of irrigation water adds about $3 in ag gross receipts and $2 in labour income, according to Alberta’s Irrigation Projects Association’s studies. The benefits of crop diversification and the added food processing and livestock production that are available when irrigation is present bring added stability and investment to the region that are not entirely enjoyed by farmers.

Times have changed since the Gardiner Dam was built, along with crop genetics and the weather. A more violent environment, with extremes of drought and concentrated rain delivery, requires some of the mitigation that irrigation can provide. This includes reductions in public payments to agricultural business risk management programs.

Limiting flood and drought events and stabilizing municipal and recreational sources that improve life in a semi-arid environment are responsible societal acts.

Investments of the 1960s in Lake Diefenbaker now provide 45 percent of Saskatchewan’s drinking water and new investments will improve those supplies.

It was politics and a lack of long-term economic vision by successive governments that stopped irrigation implementation in Saskatchewan in the 1970s and kept it halted. It’s time to take this job off the Prairies’ to-do list.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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