Climate change poses low risks to irrigation

A study out of the University of Alberta looked to see if the province could meet its expansion goals

Despite climate change pressures, Alberta’s irrigation sector should be able to grow with few risks, suggests new research, as long as water supply doesn’t change too much and if new technologies are adopted.

The research, conducted by the University of Alberta and funded by the Alberta Land Institute, looked to see if the province could expand the sector given that temperatures are rising and that populations are growing. Such increases will put pressure on water supply.

The researchers found that the sector could expand if water supplies remain good and more water-efficient pivots and pipes are installed, said Evan Davies, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, who helped with the project.

“You can expand the irrigation sector without a lot of risk as long as efficiency improvements go along with that, and as long as the water supply doesn’t change as dramatically,” said Davies, following his presentation at the May 30 Alberta Land Use conference in Edmonton.

The research team conducted tests on a model called the Alberta Irrigation Scenario Simulator. The model takes temperature, precipitation and irrigation supply predictions to figure out how that will affect crop yield in the future.

Irrigation contributed $3.2 billion to the provincial economy in 2011, with 17 percent of that going directly to producers and 83 percent to the government of Alberta. The province wants to increase the sector by 10 percent over the next 16 years.

While adopting more technology is needed, headway has already been made in becoming more water efficient, said Jamie Wuite, executive director with the irrigation and farm water branch at Alberta Agriculture.

During his presentation at the conference, Wuite said the province has doubled its efficiency in the last 40 years, pointing to the installation of more pipes and more water-efficient pivots.

Pipes can better contain the water, he said, whereas when water comes through a canal, much of it is lost to leeching or evaporation. As well, he added most farms now use pivots with drop tubes, which are 84 percent water efficient.

Wuite said he expects new technologies will make it easier in the future to convert more canals into pipeline, where new pipelines can handle larger volumes.

As well, if newer pivots and other technologies such as sub-surface drip work in Alberta, that could allow the industry to further expand while using less water, he said.

“Efficiencies free up that water, so it then becomes a policy decision on what elected officials want to do with it,” he said. “We could irrigate more acres, or irrigate the same acres and provide more drinking water or wetlands. We have those options.”

Still, more work is needed to determine how the province’s water supply will change over time, Davies added.

“The concern could be you have snow melt occurring earlier and reservoirs can’t capture that additional runoff due to limited capacity, or for flood control efforts depending on how it melts,” he said.

“Rivers flows may also be lower later in the summer when demands are highest, then the problem is you need more water when you can’t divert as much from the river.”

Data from the water supply project is expected to come out in the summer of 2019.

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