Tour highlights importance of irrigation to southern Alta.

Low water levels in the St. Mary River below the St. Mary Dam, near Magrath, Alta., speak to the dry conditions in the region this summer. The dam and related irrigation works have allowed Southern Alberta crops served by the system to survive and thrive this season. | Barb Glen photo

Two Canadian senators learned the importance of southern Alberta’s irrigation system Aug. 12 when they toured a portion of it in the company of various municipal officials.

Doug Black from Alberta and Rob Black from Ontario flew in that day over fields greened by irrigation and fields browned by ongoing drought conditions where irrigation is not available.

The group spent most of its time at St. Mary Dam, a key distribution point in the system.

Lawrence Wegwitz, team lead for the St. Mary Dam, said nine of Alberta’s 13 irrigation districts are served in some fashion through the workings of this particular dam.

He described a six-year repair project to a leaking valve, completed in 2019, that provided greater integrity to the system.

The original dam and spillway were completed in 1951 and largely replaced from 1996 to 2000. However, irrigation at its earliest stage began in this region in 1900.

A tour of the spillway and the half-mile tunnel beneath the dam made an impression on senator Doug Black.

“I’m a strong believer in ensuring that the Alberta economy is diversified and agriculture is a key part of that and water is a key part of ensuring that not only can we maintain what we have but we can enhance that,” he said.

The dam allows distribution from the St. Mary Reservoir, which collects water from the St. Mary River and, via a canal system, from the Waterton and Belly rivers. It is released as needed through a supply tunnel, a low-level outlet tunnel to maintain river flow, and over a spillway during times of high flow.

The low-level tunnel also has an electrical power plant, as do several structures in the entire irrigation system. About 1.5 million acres are under irrigation in Alberta.

Doug Black, who was elected as a senator by Albertans in 2012 and appointed to the job in 2013, announced his retirement the day before the tour. He will end his term on Oct. 31.

Rob Black of Fergus, Ont., was appointed to the Senate in 2018 and is considered to be the main agricultural advocate in the Red Chamber.

The federal and provincial governments last fall announced $815 million in funding for modernization in eight of southern Alberta’s irrigation districts. It is expected to add 208,000 acres to the system and create more than 8,000 jobs.

The St. Mary Dam spillway has a radial gate system to control flow during peak periods. | Barb Glen photo

Among the improvements is expansion of Chin Reservoir, near Taber, Alta., which is now in the design engineering phase. Four new off-stream water storage reservoirs are also part of the project funding, as is conversion of many open canals to underground pipelines.

Of the $815 million, $520 million is earmarked for the new reservoirs and about $295 for the modernization projects.

The eight irrigation districts involved are Bow River, Eastern, Lethbridge Northern, Raymond, St. Mary River, Taber, United and Western.

The St. Mary River and Taber irrigation districts are currently considering a merger, which will be put to a vote by district users later this year.

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