Effects of water scarcity studied in southern Alberta

Survey may hear about allocation changes and increasing competition among users such as producers, urban communities and industry

Researchers are seeking to learn from farmers and ranchers in southern Alberta about how changes such as water scarcity affect agricultural practices and policies in the region.

“You’re often seeing in the news these days the struggles that are going on in agricultural communities, and across here, we have rolling droughts all the time, and it’s a struggle,” said Alex Wilkinson, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

“And I just hope my research is able to help them, whether that’s help develop practices that can help out for a more thriving community, or help drive policy changes to give the community the space to grow and be successful.”

Producers are being encouraged to fill out a 10- to 15-minute online survey as part of a study at the school, he said.

It will explore everything from local perspectives and knowledge to weather, climate, water and environmental conditions, along with agricultural policy and economics, said a statement outlining the study’s research motivation and objectives.

A separate statement by the research team outlined some of the potential problems facing the region.

“Water is critical for successful farming and ranching, but too much or too little can create problems as is well known in the water-scarce region of southern Alberta,” it said.

“With climate projections predicting more severe drought and flood events in the future, it is clear that both water and agricultural policy and management may need to change to support a thriving farm and ranch community.”

As a result, “it is evident that local on-farm practices and regional decision-making must shift to be systems focused, addressing episodic floods and variable droughts, and toward building capacity to effectively respond to change,” said the statement on the study’s objectives.

However, researchers don’t want to predetermine what actually concerns producers, said Wilkinson.

“I don’t want to put folks in a box and just say, ‘we’re just looking at climate change,’ and say we’re not concerned about other changes that they’re experiencing, so it’s giving that space to the people participating in the survey to say what changes they are most concerned about and what changes that they most acutely experienced.”

The federal and provincial governments announced last year they were contributing to $815 million in funding for eight irrigation districts in Alberta.

Besides adding an extra 200,000 acres to 1.3 million already being irrigated, the funding will be used to construct four off-stream water storage reservoirs, along with things such as converting open canals into underground pipelines.

“They announced that a few months ago, so I think we’ll wait to see what people say about that,” said Wilkinson.

A recent report by the National Farmers Union was critical of what it described as drought proofing against climate change through irrigation megaprojects that help a few hundred farmers on one to two percent of prairie farmland.

Producers should instead promote the buildup of organic matter in soil to better hold rainwater, it said.

Wilkinson said changes such as water allocation and increasing competition among users ranging from rural producers to urban communities and industries is another potential concern that might arise among survey respondents.

But again, researchers want farmers and ranchers to tell them what their concerns are, not the other way around.

“We just want the research and the data to speak for itself in the sense that we’re looking at the local experience, the local knowledge, and what they’re experiencing day to day.”

The survey contains about 40 questions that are mostly multiple choice, with respondents able to submit their answers anonymously, he said, adding it will likely be available until this fall.

It will “explore the social ecological dimensions of agricultural land and water use, alternative and diversified land and water use practices, history of change, existing response to change and developing strategies for effective responses to change,” said the statement about the study’s objectives.

The results will be analyzed using things such as statistics, with the study also looking at the intersection of the data with different policies as well as things such as climate and environmental reports, said Wilkinson.

The goal is to provide information that producers can potentially share about things such as successful agricultural practices, he said.

Researchers also hope to identify gaps or issues in policies that are hindering producers that can be shared with government agencies “so that we’re just better situated to support the farm and ranch community going forward,” he added.

Information may be provided to people through things such as fact sheets or other materials that can be made readily available to producer organizations and the agricultural community, he said.

“And if there’s interest, potentially doing things like open house, research-sharing type of things.”

The survey is available online here.

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