Friday, 25 May 2012 13:36

Alberta irrigation should be lauded, not panned

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By Taylor Shire — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

When Richard Phillips heard that scientists claimed river levels have dropped 40-to-84 per cent in the last 100 years, he got quite upset.

“That is an outright lie,” said Phillips, the general manager of the Bow River Irrigation District. “Recorded flows are down because people are using water that never used to be used.
“The natural flow, which would be occurring if we weren’t taking water out, there’s no significant trend to lower flow.
“Recorded flow, of course it’s lower.”
The Bow River Irrigation District, along with twelve other districts in the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, have come together and formed a campaign called “Thanks to Irrigation.”
Tom Crooks, general manager for the St. Mary Irrigation District, said the campaign is a good way to inform people.
“The campaign is to bring awareness of irrigation to the area,” said Crooks. “Irrigation is not just helping grow crops, it’s also part of the communities.”
Phillips agreed, adding that all the lakes in southern Alberta are irrigation created.
“Irrigation takes more than it’s share of hits, but overall, irrigation is good for southern Alberta, it’s good for the province and our intention was to get that message out,” he said.
Irrigation development in Alberta totals more than 1.6 million acres, 98 per cent of which is found in southern Alberta. The provincial government plans to do a review of the province’s water use in the next while. The review will tell each district how much water it is allocated each year.
Without knowing what the review will look like, Phillips doesn’t have any concerns just yet.
“It’s hard to say exactly what the issues may be,” he said. “One thing we hear frequently from critics of irrigation is that irrigation has too much water given to it.
“We respectfully disagree with that.”
Phillips said the districts are not looking to increase their share of the water, but simply maintain the allocated amount.
Each year, the Bow River district is allocated 450,000 acre feet. Last year, it used 151,700 acre feet.
"Only about 30 per cent from the total license volume was diverted last year,” said Phillips.
It was a low year for water use for Phillips’ district, as he said the average use each year is 300,000 acre feet. One acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep. One acre foot is the equivalent of 325,850 US gallons or 1,233,281 litres.
In 2010, all of the districts combined used 802,000 of the allocated 2,798,000 acre feet. And Phillips said this number is getting lower each year.
“There is a slight decrease in total diversion for the rivers because even though the districts are getting bigger, we are getting efficient faster,” he said.
Phillips said 20 per cent of the flow of the South Saskatchewan River is being used for consumptive use, of which irrigation is the primary user.
“We are legally obligated to leave 50 per cent of the water in the river to pass to Saskatchewan but we are using less than half of what the province could use legally,” he said.
“It’s a very managed and engineered river now and it never used to be.”
But Phillips noted that it’s always up to the weather how much water will be used each year.
“This could be our lowest demand year on record or it could be our highest, depending what the weather does,” he said.
“Basically in the irrigation business, you plan for a dry year. So you fill your reservoirs and if it’s a dry year, you’re OK and if it ends up being wet, you’re still OK because it’s easy to make that water disappear back into the rivers.”

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Ryan Dahlman

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