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Wednesday, 14 December 2011 11:48

Improper drainage costly to Alberta farmers, conference told

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By Jamie Woodford
Southern Alberta
If famous explorer John Palliser could see the amount of spring rains that accumulate in his Triangle today, he might not have written off the area as unsuitable for agricultural development.

Palliser deemed southern Alberta, and part of Saskatchewan, too arid for farming in the late 1800s, and although many farmers proved him wrong, they still dealt with severe drought conditions. Fast forward 100 years and farmers are now having to cope with excess moisture in a traditionally dry environment.

Brian Brewin spoke at the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association (AIPA) conference at the end of November about the unusual amount of moisture southern Alberta has been experiencing the past few spring seasons.

Brewin, a Municipal District of Taber reeve and farmer who also sits on many agriculture and water-related committees, is working towards achieving better drainage protocols for the area that has seen more water than ever before.

“My parents have farmed here all my life and they don’t ever remember springs like this,” he said, adding every municipality is in the same boat.

“We’ve just had an overwhelming amount of water to deal with the past few springs.”

He said the economic losses are huge and there needs to be a change in the way spring floods are handled because it’s likely to continue into the future.

“In 2010, SMRID (St. Mary River Irrigation District) had $8 million worth of damage. In 2011, another $8 million.”

The M.D. of Taber reported $1 million in damages in 2010 and $2 million in 2011.

“Other municipalities around here would have similar numbers,” he said. “That’s a cost of not doing anything. I think we need to address this to move forward.”

Brewin said irrigation districts and municipalities with overlapping infrastructure mandates need to work together to address the issue of flooding on agricultural lands.

“Irrigation infrastructure was designed to move water from the reservoir to the fields, municipal district roads were built for traffic. They were never designed with drainage in mind,” he said. “Irrigation infrastructure is not designed for drainage, but it is called on for drainage. Same as municipal borrow pits ... farmers are draining in municipal borrow pits with the expectation it is going to drain somewhere.”

There are challenges in achieving a common goal of implementing proper drainage infrastructure. There are natural drainage channels, but many have been interrupted due to private and public development.

Other challenges include the alteration of natural drainage by landowners which increases the rate, volume and timing of the run off; lack of understanding of legislature and policy requirements in provincial and municipal irrigation districts; and closure of man-made drainage channels.

In order to manage the two extremes — drought and flood — southern Alberta is capable of experiencing,

“We need to start investing into proper drainage infrastructure,” Brewin said.

To get there, he believes irrigation districts, municipalities and the provincial government need to create one long-term drainage strategy.

“Sometimes, it’s extremely onerous for a farmer to be running in three different areas ... with three different plans. I really believe we need to get together and have one plan,” he said.

“We all have a stake in it, but I think we can make that a heck of a lot easier on farmers.”

Meetings with government officials in agriculture, environment and transportation, irrigation districts, and municipalities have already begun.

The two-day conference wrapped up Nov. 30.

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