Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen tabled a bill earlier this week that would allow massive expansions for irrigation districts in Alberta.
The districts own and operate hundreds of kilometres of water canal and pipeline infrastructure, as well as reservoirs to feed the systems.
“This act essentially enables the largest single-time investment in irrigation to be become a reality,” Dreeshen said.
Bill 54, the Irrigation Districts Amendment Act, would do two things: first, it would give irrigation districts the option to create bylaws to limit the number of consecutive terms a board member can serve. Second, it would define commercial activity — allowing irrigation districts to borrow money for large-scale expansions.
“It doesn’t allow irrigation districts to go out and build a car dealership,” said Minister Dreeshen. “This is something that it has to be specific for the needs of irrigation districts.”
Irrigation plays a big role in Alberta agriculture, especially in southern parts of the province. Alberta has more than 1.7 million irrigated acres and the province estimates 200,000 more acres of land will receive new irrigation.
The amendment comes after an $815-million investment last fall. The Alberta government partnered with eight irrigation districts and the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to modernize irrigation infrastructure and increase water storage capacity throughout southern Alberta.
The eight irrigation districts participating in the investment are Bow River Irrigation District, Eastern Irrigation District, Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District, Raymond Irrigation District, St. Mary River Irrigation District, Taber Irrigation District, United Irrigation District and Western Irrigation District.
The expansion plan would create two new reservoirs and expand two existing reservoirs in southern Alberta, as well as convert open air canals into pipelines.
“That whole deal and size of expansion needs to have clear definition of what commercial activity is,” Dreeshen said. Bill 54 would help provide that.
St. Mary River Irrigation District general manager David Westwood has been part of the planning for the funding since conversations started back in late summer 2020.
St. Mary plans to carry out 26 modernizations and a reservoir expansion. The total cost is close to $300 million.
Westwood said that the investment opportunity and clarification of the bill has made it all possible.
“This was kind of the final piece of the puzzle,” Westwood said. “I was really happy to see it all come to fruition.”
Dreeshen hopes this will attract more economic investment opportunities to the province.
“It also attracts, or acts like a magnet, to attract, investment capital from around the world,” he said.
“Whether it’s Cavendish, or McCain. So many food processors look at reliability of irrigated acres.”
Westwood calls this a generational investment.
“Once we complete these projects, it will impact how we operate how a district for decades to come.”