July 20th, 2024

Is it realistic to be expanding irrigation in Alberta?

By Lethbridge Herald on February 28, 2024.


A recent article in the Lethbridge Herald (Feb 14) regarding designation of an AgriFood Processing Zone  contains assertions by UCP MLA Grant Hunter to Lethbridge County Council that irrigation districts are making decisions about expanding by 300,000 acres and that more water storage is being built, paid for by government and ratepayers, to support that expansion.  

I suggest announcements of expanded irrigation and reservoirs to support more water capture and diversion at public expense are untethered from reality, reasonableness and public scrutiny. 

The current drought throughout the Oldman River Basin is characterized by mountain snowpack well below long-term average, streams and rivers at minimum flows for aquatic life, and reservoirs, on-stream and off-stream, well below normal levels for this time of year.

 Models of climate change suggest more frequent and prolonged drought is our future. There is not enough water to fill existing reservoirs with just two years of below average mountain snowpack and precipitation. 

Is it realistic to build, at great public expense, more storage capacity that will remain unfilled in many years, provide more surface for water loss through evaporation and increase stress on rivers? 

Irrigated area in the Oldman basin has increased at least 16% since restrictions on water allocation were first implemented by government three decades ago. 

Another 15 per cent or more expansion is proposed, as indicated by MLA Hunter. Irrigation districts, supported by government, justify expansion within their current water licences based on calculations of water saved through improvements in irrigation infrastructure such as more efficient pivots on farms and replacing canals with pipelines. 

A growing body of research concludes that irrigation water use in semi-arid regions has increased despite claims of limits to allocation and improvements in efficiency.  

In a ‘paradox of irrigation efficiency’ more water is withdrawn and applied as irrigators increase crop area and switch to higher-value, more water-intensive crops (e.g. potatoes, corn, hay).

 Summer flow in the Oldman River is already reduced by approximately 60 per cent from natural levels in its lower reaches. Increased evapotranspiration from warming climate will place further stress on the Oldman River and its tributaries below major dams and diversions. 

Is irrigation expansion worth the increased risk to our rivers’ water quality, fish and cottonwood forests, not to mention other water users? 

Two-thirds of the Oldman River’s natural flow in an average year is allocated for irrigation agriculture comprising 87 per cent of total volume of water licences. Five percent is licenced for industrial use and only two percent for municipalities.

 Eight irrigation districts hold the largest, most senior water licences dating back to 1899. Because of historical over-allocation, the basin is closed to new water licences. As river flow declines the proportion of water used for irrigation agriculture, will only increase.

 Rights to water, our most essential and limiting public resource, will be in more demand with population growth, economic diversification and settlement of indigenous rights. 

Is it reasonable to entrench one sector’s stranglehold on water rights and deny options to future generations for a diverse and environmentally sustainable economy?  

MLA Hunter’s presumptions about irrigation expansion and increased storage paid for by government are premature and ignore the established need for environmental impact assessment and review by the Natural Resources Conservation Board to determine if the proposed projects are in the public interest. T

here has yet to be a full evaluation of costs and benefits. Are there implications for communities and land use in our headwaters? 

Are we witnessing undue influence by the agrifood industry over important land use and water management decisions that have repercussions for all of us who call the Oldman River basin home?  

It is reasonable and realistic to expect public scrutiny of these matters which MLA Hunter considers a done deal. 

Cheryl Bradley


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My eyes feast on an informed letter in the Lethbridge Herald.

Why are we expanding irrigated acres in a region that can expect droughts that are more frequent, more intense, and longer in duration?

Why is the government contributing hundreds of millions of dollars (in a ‘free’ market) to build reservoirs for private industry that will remain empty most years?

If this government wants to interfere with the market, they should learn to pick some winners – but we know they won’t

Southern Albertan

It definitely, is not realistic to expand irrigation in Alberta. Is it a denial of reality or politicians not willing to speak of a water, drought, environmental disaster/emergency. It boggles the mind. There might not even be enough water to do ‘water sharing.’ The sentiment out there now, still, by many, is that it will snow and rain enough.
Again, the lack of water now, should be top priority. The lack of water would greatly impact all aspects of our society. The financial disaster could be in the $billions/trillions, since money talks, if nothing else. If so, then, what would the Smith UCP/TBA folks have to say?


Relying on irrigation as a hedge against drought related climate change is a mug’s game. That’s because the snow pack that feeds the irrigation system is itself vulnerable to climate change.


excellent, informative letter – thank you.
that all said, we had snow recently, snow in the forecast, and there is always the chance of a rain or two in june! we are secure lol
the best irrigation i can think of would be to drain the fools that comprise the majority govt in edmonton into the sewage system, where those idiots belong.


I feel I too must pipe in with praise for Cheryl’s contribution regarding this topic. I first became truly alert to Cheryl’s expertise in environmental studies and land management back in the late 1990’s when I was researching plains cottonwood health as related to flooding. I cited Cheryl and coauthor(s) more than a few times. I recollect that my personal experiences and observations from simply paddling and exploring southern Alberta rivers and creeks, even irrigation drainage, had noted some key distinctions regarding cottonwood forest regeneration that other researchers failed to mention. As a result of those readings my attention perked up whenever I learned of yet another effort and contribution to ecological knowledge from Cheryl Bradley (and as well her life partner Lorne). One only has to walk by Cheryl’s front lawn to recognize what a sage, an elder, a prophet Cheryl Bradley is. We should be thankful, grateful, for the likes of such individuals as they have done much for our planet and by association our personal welfare.


thank you for taking time to share this. we have so many nasty, buffoons, running the show and ruining the greater good, ironically in the name of “service,” no less – as they refer to their self serving, greedy roles.
we need to better celebrate those that truly serve the greater good for the purpose of the greater good. cheers to you, and to the likes of the cheryls and lornes of our world. it is this class of people that we should look up to as leaders, for they truly serve the common good.