Peter Watts: Is it time to expand Alberta’s agriculture irrigation system?

The semi-arid regions of southern Alberta are home to an enterprising collection of agriculture producers and food processors.  Potatoes, sugar beets, and corn are among the principal crops.

All of this is made possible thanks to an irrigation system divided into 13 districts, comprising some 525,000 hectares of land.  Additionally, there are another 100,000 hectares of land irrigated through private contracts and scattered across Alberta, as far north as the Peace Country.  That amount of irrigated land constitutes about 65 per cent of all the irrigated land in Canada.

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“We’re talking about a lot of production from irrigated land and about a world population that is growing and that is going to need more food,” said David Hill, in a conversation I had with him.  Mr. Hill is the southern Alberta director of agriculture and agri-business programs at the University of Lethbridge.  He is at the centre of a drive to create a core of researchers, producers, food processors, and education institutions, all centered on the continued development of a solid potato industry.  And Mr. Hill believes that other groups could well look at this model and possibly adopt it for their own specific needs in the future.

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The question that comes to mind is whether or not the irrigation system can be expanded.  It’s not just a question of technology, it’s also a question of water — there is a finite amount of water in southern Alberta.  To grow the system is more than just installing more pipes and pumps.  It’s finding a way to increase the amount of water available.

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There are economic and environmental elements to this conversation.  But I think it’s time to have that conversation:  to show the kind of vision and leadership that southern Alberta’s early pioneers showed in developing the system we have at the moment.

At the moment, there are no active discussions going on at Alberta Agriculture on what it would take to expand the irrigation network, but perhaps there should be.  Perhaps the discussion begins among the producers and food processing companies about what would be involved and what factors need to be considered.  Then, perhaps, government can catch up and help to make possible the continued growth of the agriculture and agri-business sector.

The world will need more of what is being produced at present.


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