An investment into irrigation in southern Alberta will increase the amount of irrigated land

A new investment into irrigation in southern Alberta will be the largest irrigation expansion in the history of Alberta.

The mix of investment comes from within and beyond the province:

  • $245 million from the Alberta government
  • $164 million from irrigation districts
  • $407 million loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank

“This is a slam dunk for growth in one of our economy’s most important industries,” said Premier Kenney in a news conference on Oct. 9. The funding is intended to modernize irrigation infrastructure to increase storage capacity, which will increase the amount of land that can be irrigated while using the same amount of water.

As one of the top land uses in southern Alberta, agriculture represents the top renewable and sustainable resource within the South Saskatchewan region.


Irrigation in Alberta

Irrigation contributes around $3.6 billion every year to Alberta’s GDP. By increasing the selection of viable crops and amount of agricultural and grazing land, irrigation contributes to around 19% of the total agricultural sales in the province.

There are 13 irrigation districts in southern Alberta that own, operate and maintain the infrastructure necessary to divert, transport and deliver water for agricultural purposes in addition to municipal, industrial, commercial and recreation uses. Irrigation supplies water to around 42,000 Albertans in 50 municipalities.

In Alberta, the total amount of irrigated area is 65% of the total irrigated area across the entire country. Even though irrigation occurs on 6% of the total agricultural land base, it contributes to nearly 20% of the province’s gross agricultural production.

Agricultural irrigation is the largest single user of water in the province – using upwards of 65% of all water consumed in the province.

Irrigation Districts in Alberta


History of Irrigation in Alberta

The first recorded irrigation project in Alberta was in 1878, when water from Fish Creek near Calgary was diverted to irrigate around 20 acres. Irrigation districts were authorized in 1894, under the conditions that surface waters cannot become private property and the use of water is regulated by water licenses. There have been successful irrigation districts and some failures, but these principles have continued for decades.

Irrigation districts were started as commercial ventures and as operations by farmers. As legislation was introduced to give districts quasi-municipal powers, the irrigation districts transformed into the entities that they are known as today.

Today, there are 13 irrigation districts in the South Saskatchewan region that are each governed by a board of directors. The districts collect revenues and oversee the operations, maintenance and expansion of their infrastructure network.

Alberta’s irrigation districts within the Land-use Framework regional planning boundaries


Alberta’s Irrigation Strategy

Water is a finite resource. Alberta’s irrigation strategy acknowledges that access to water is limited and water use has an impact to the people, communities and wildlife downstream.

Alberta’s Irrigation Strategy is a framework that guides the “efficient, productive, and sustainable use of water resources” through five key strategies:

  1. Increase the productivity of the water used
  2. Increase the efficiency of water transport and use
  3. Promote the effective use, management and conservation of water
  4. Enhance water security through new or existing water reservoirs
  5. Manage the effects of irrigation on water quality

It is intended that this strategy guides the efforts of the provincial government’s policies over the next 10 to 20 years.


Irrigation in the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan

All 13 irrigation districts are located partially or fully within the South Saskatchewan region. There is private irrigation infrastructure beyond the region, but irrigation is an important consideration within the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. In fact, 65% of Canada’s irrigated lands lies within the South Saskatchewan region.

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan includes a classification of irrigation suitability based on:

  • Previous irrigation suitability classifications
  • Soil surveys
  • Photos and superficial geology reports
  • Previous standards for land classification

Irrigation suitability is a key factor in land use decisions related to the conversion of public land to agricultural land.

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