By Kenyon Stronski
Westwind Weekly News
After the agricultural disaster caused by the severe drought last year, many farmers entered the 2022 growing season with their fingers crossed and with a terrible start to the 2022 season — a repeat looked inevitable.
“The year started out extremely dry as everybody remembers and water demand ramped right up to maximum use from zero,” said John McKee, Raymond Irrigation District board chairman. “The operations manager handled it, and there’s always some startup things, there’s always a valve or two that gets frozen in the winter and we try to meet the demand on them, they were working 24/7. They got the water, they got the water delivered, and the crops all got off to a good start despite the extremely dry and harsh decisions, and it was extremely cold as well so the plants struggled. It’s interesting the way some of the plants responded. Some crops, it just kind of took the top yield off the start of the season, or that’s our theory anyway.”
Thankfully, a revitalizing three-inch rain hit Alberta and every farmer was able to breathe a long-awaited sigh of relief as very little water was needed over a three-week period, with McKee mentioning any more water would have just hurt the crops.
“The way the year turned out, there was some very excellent yield. Dryland in comparison launched a very good crop, but it was suffering initially from the dry weather, however, that three-inch rain turned it around, but then right at the end, the crop kind of missed an extra inch, so they all didn’t fill to the maximum potential. Irrigation evens that out and lets people have a product to sell and evens the cash flow and provides stability and security for their farms. It’s like southern Alberta was made for irrigation.”
Alberta’s unique soil composition holds water and nutrients beautifully, however, there just isn’t enough rainfall to offset the wonderful soil conditions.
“The land responds extremely well and typically we get large crops. The district has been able — by selling more water rights that have been made available by the amount of water that’s been conserved by switching to mainline and low-pressure pivots and moving away from floor irrigation — we’ve been able to expand the district to service more acres and those acres are coming on stream. This year particularly shows the importance of water and the win-win it shows for southern Alberta.”
The district holds a specific service level of water over the winter months so come the spring run-off, they’re able to capture as much water in their reservoirs as they possibly can. Last winter, McKee explained the reservoirs in Alberta were at a combined 34 per cent capacity, while they end this season with a combined 86 per cent capacity.
“It’s like coming up to the long weekend and having a full gas tank in the car. This money in the bank, it’s a wonderful position to be in. Through last winter though there was steady and ample snowfall and it was determined there would be enough water to have close to normal capacity of water for the irrigators this year and that’s all done behind the scenes. Now, going in with this higher amount in the reservoirs, we’re safer if we have a lower snowfall winter so we should be in great shape for next year no matter what happens in the mountains this year, but typically they get enough snow to fill the reservoirs. We don’t have enough reservoir capacity to capture all the water that’s available to us, Alberta can keep 50 per cent of the water and we send the other 50 to Saskatchewan and down to Montana through the Oldman River.”
“As a farmer myself, having access to irrigation water and being able to maximize yields is an absolutely amazing endeavour. There’s nothing cheap about it, but it supplies employment not just to the farmer, but that money goes to agronomists, fertilizer dealers, chemical dealers, the railways, and the people of the world all benefit because when we export food, we’re exporting water to areas that can’t grow enough food to support themselves. The world is all about exporting and importing, we don’t make cell phones here, but we have a readily available supply of food. It’s all a balance, and that balance is kept beautifully when our crops are grown under optimal conditions.”