‘It’s life or death’: Southern Alberta farmers in dark over potential water stoppage

A file photo of an irrigation system in southern Alberta. File / Global News

A lack of water: it’s an issue farmers often deal with during dry periods throughout the year, however, now people are worried there could be a shortage for a very different reason.

On Saturday, dozens of farmers and stakeholders with the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District met in Nobleford to discuss a blockage of water, which one farmer said is coming from Pikanii Nation.

Stephen Vandervalk also noted that not much information has been shared on exactly why the blockage is happening or what is being done about it.

“There needs to be some information that needs to trickle down so that farmers know what’s going on and can plan for it because we’re talking 250,000 head (of cattle) that are at risk, starting now,” Vandervalk said.

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In a statement to Global News on Friday, Stan Grier, chief of the Piikani First Nation, said the Piikani Nation is not not blocking a major water infrastructure, but acknowledged there was an issue to be resolved.

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“A news story is incorrectly reporting that the Piikani Nation is blocking a major water infrastructure project on the Oldman River. This is simply not the case,” Grier said.

“Piikani chief and council have been working constructively for years to resolve outstanding issues and ensure that Piikani’s interests are preserved as part of what is a massive water infrastructure project on our land that directly affects us.”

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However, Grier added that there has been some tension with the government, following a proposed agreement and counter offer from the nation.

“Unfortunately, in advance of conclusion of talks, there have been many instances of Ministry of Environment contractors conducting work on our Reserve lands. Needless to say, that is unacceptable.”

Grier added that the nation is working to “resolve the outstanding issues.”

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“The Piikani people believe water is sacred and water is a Treaty right. However, we also understand the critical importance of water for the region and for our neighbours, especially those in agriculture who, like our own ranchers, have been so hard hit by drought,” he said.

“Our goal is to resolve the outstanding issues, while ensuring that the project benefits the entire region.”

Read more: Lethbridge County forms alliance with irrigation districts

Press secretary for Alberta Environment and Parks Paul Hamnett also acknowledged there was an issue, and while he didn’t clarify what the problem was, he too noted that they are working to find a solution as soon as possible.

“Alberta’s government is working in good faith and in the spirit of reconciliation with Piikani Nation to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible,” Hamnett said in a statement to Global News Friday.

“Ministers have been meeting with Piikani Nation elected officials to hear and understand Piikani Nation concerns since this government was elected in 2019. The dialogue between officials has been respectful and productive.

“We are also aware of the concerns of the farmers and cattle producers in the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District who urgently need this water.

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“Alberta’s government has had a settlement agreement with Piikani First Nation and the government of Canada since 2002 to permit Alberta access to the headworks to supply water to the irrigation district.

“Any access to Reserve land that occurred by government officials were for repairs and safety reasons as legally defined by conditions of the agreement and accompanying access permits.”

Read more: Piikani Nation members want more involvement in Alberta’s public coal consultations

Whatever the reason for the blockage, Vandervalk said the lack of information and water are causing a concern for both the safety of his animals, and his crops.

“This is water. This isn’t a road being blocked, an inconvenience that you can drive around.

“This is life and death, literally.”

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