Rick Swenson doesn’t turn off his irrigation pivot when the wind blows and the temperature soars. He cranks it up and keeps the water pumping.
He’s irrigating his crops and acting as a disposal system for the City of Moose Jaw’s waste water treatment facilities.
“There’s no drip nozzles around here,” the Saskatchewan farmer said. “On hot, windy days, we let ’er rip.”
During the 30 years since the Baildon Moose Jaw Effluent Irrigation project began, 3,300 acres of sandy soil that were badly eroded during the 1930s have become good agricultural land capable of growing more than poor pasture.
“It made good dirt out of yellow sand,” said Swenson.
The idea of using waste water from Moose Jaw was Swenson’s father’s idea. In 1974, after a series of floods and water quality problems in the Qu’Appelle River Valley, a government report recommended keeping Moose Jaw and Regina’s untreated waste water out of the river.
Swenson believed the water could be pumped onto agricultural land so the sandy soil would act as a filter and the crops could use the nutrients.
Not everyone embraced the idea. Neighbours quit talking to the family and others were afraid the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, a major economic boost in Moose Jaw, would have to relocate because more birds hovered over the land, feeding on the waste.
It took eight years for the project to become reality in 1984 with federal, provincial and municipal funding.
It’s estimated that the nutrient-rich water source has doubled crop yields and reduced fertilizer needs.
“There is no question none of us would have viable dryland farms today,” Swenson said.
It’s not uncommon for the six farmers involved in the project to pump 20 inches of water on their land to grow canola, wheat, corn and hay. Irrigators use 23 centre pivots to pump 80 percent of the waste water from the settling ponds 10 kilometres away.
Effluent irrigation is not without its problems. Salt from city water conditioners has raised the salt level of the land, and corrosive chemicals in the water play havoc with the irrigation equipment.
Environment Canada recently asked Moose Jaw to develop a pollution prevention program to monitor the amounts of ammonia and chlorine in the water. A study suggested that ground water levels in the area have been increasing since the project began.
Despite problems, Swenson said using waste water for irrigation is an option other prairie communities should adopt to help diversify crops and attract development.
According to a Canada Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre report, 65 effluent irrigation projects operate on the Prairies on 14,000 acres. It estimated that effluent irrigation could potentially water 150,000 acres and help eliminate undesirable discharge into natural water ways.
Effluent irrigation projects account for about five percent of the total prairie effluent discharge.
Don Jones, field co-ordinator with the Alberta Research Council’s Integrated Water Management Plan, said excess salt is a big problem with effluent irrigation. A simple fix would be to switch to potassium chloride from sodium chloride in most water softener systems.
Recycling water from waste water treatment facilities and other grey water may be key to solving looming water issues on the Prairies.
Cathy Main, program leader with the Integrated Water Management Plan, said water reuse has become a standard around the world, but Canadians are hesitant to embrace it because of the “ick factor” and possible increased costs.
Placing a realistic value on water use may prompt a search for new ways to promote water recycling, she said.
Few communities are willing to jump the environmental regulatory hurdles necessary to adopt such programs. She said it’s easier to pull water out of a river, use it, treat it and dump it back into the river.
Jones said paying a higher price to use fresh water for toilets will be the carrot needed to invest in water recycling programs.
“If fresh water is expensive, waste water will look cheap.”