When in Drought...

Following the irrigation network that feeds the world and defines a province

Alberta Venture, March 2016

  Photograph: Joey Podlubny

Photograph: Joey Podlubny

 
 

"Whiskey's for drinking, water’s for fighting,” says Terrence Lazarus as we leave the Lethbridge office of the St. Mary River Irrigation District. It’s rumoured to be a Mark Twain quote, he says, loading into his pickup on a mild October afternoon. But it might as well belong to my tour guide, a brawny Zimbabwe-born Jew who talks about apartheid one minute and Comedy Central the next. He describes how in 1990, Milton Born With a Tooth, the leader of a group called the Lonefighters Society, once shot at him in a dispute over the construction of the Oldman River dam. “He missed,” Lazarus says, shrugging.

Lazarus is the general manager of the irrigation district, the largest of 13 in Alberta that provide water to more than half a million acres of ­farmland. Tucked mostly between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, in a formation that straddles the south like a crooked ­holster, these districts represent billions of ­dollars in infrastructure and feed the region’s municipalities and agriculture. Lazarus wants to show me how much southern Alberta needs irrigation; I want to know why the prosperity is concentrated here.

This region, he says, has the greatest potential for agriculture thanks to its climate and nutrient-rich soil, but it’s also where precipitation is scarcest. With 500 millimetres of rain and 800 millimetres of evaporation every year, it’s virtually a desert. Less than half of that rainfall occurs during the growing season, so the SMRID puts 807,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoirs every spring (an acre-foot is the volume of a sheet of water one acre in area and one foot in depth). These reservoirs mean that in drought years like 2015, the region still thrives, as its members irrigate crops or grow feed for cattle while farmers in northern Alberta bear the brunt of crippling production costs.

Driving through Raymond, a bedroom community of Lethbridge, on our way to the outer reaches of the SMRID, Lazarus says water is a hallmark of his life. When he was young, he moved with his family to South Africa, where he learned to surf along the beaches of Durban. After university he built irrigation canals in Malawi, but eventually moved to Medicine Hat, where his in-laws lived, and where Alberta Environment was fortuitously hiring a construction inspector to help build canals. He’s also a master scuba diver. “I’m not one of those divers who likes deep and extreme challenges – I’m more into the ecology of things,” he says. “As you dive more, you’re interested in smaller and smaller things.”

The opposite is true for Alberta’s irrigation network: the more you learn, the more you’re impressed by its size. Lazarus says there are more than 7,500 kilometres of canal and pipelines in Alberta. Members of the districts withdraw almost 3.2 million acre feet of water from Alberta’s rivers every year. The SMRID on its own spans five counties – end to end, its infrastructure could reach Toronto. And though it accounts for less than two per cent of Alberta’s agricultural land, it produces about 10 per cent of its agriculture value, and almost a third of all jobs in the region are tied to irrigation.

In fact, southern Alberta, home to just 250,000 people, uses a colossal 60 per cent of Canada’s irrigation water. During drought years, especially, it means “a lot of people hate irrigation,” Lazarus says. The detractors cite concerns of overuse and environmental damage. But does the network withdraw more water than it should? Lazarus says there’s a balance: Every spring, the province allocates water to the districts after an assessment of the snowpacks. Consumption is determined by availability, so in the case of a prolonged drought, every stakeholderwould have to dial back their intake, as per binding water-use agreements.

Besides, the districts have vast amounts of water in their reservoirs. A few drought years in a row? Lazarus waves his hand dismissively, like he’s swatting a fly. I pry – what if the snowpacks dry up? How many years of drought before the agreements dissolve?

“Essentially, I can’t see a time when…” he says, trailing off. If Alberta sees a succession of dry spells, he implies, the province will have a bigger problem than irrigation on its hands. “You know, when Palliser came, it was nothing like it is now,” he says.

He’s referring to the explorer John Palliser, who declared the land unsuitable for crops during a survey expedition in the 1850s, amid a prolonged drought. Along with southwest Saskatchewan, the area was christened Palliser’s Triangle. But in 1884, Sir Alexander Galt, one of the fathers of Confederation, made an agreement with the federal government to build a railroad from Medicine Hat to Fort McLeod, which was underwritten by contracts with Canadian Pacific Railway. Then he made a deal with a group of Mormons under Charles Ora Card from Utah, who’d established the eponymous village of Cardston. Card had irrigation experience from his farm in Salt Lake City, and while he and his band of pioneers weren’t the first to irrigate in Alberta – that’d be rancher John Quirk, in Sheep Creek in 1878 – they “were the first to do so on a scale large enough to involve their immediate community,” according to James MacGregor’s History of Alberta. Galt leased them 700,000 acres, expecting they’d build an irrigation network and entice more settlers. He saw irrigation as a technology that would suborn the land to the needs of the settlers.

Lack of capital meant Galt’s dream never came to fruition. But eventually Sir Alexander’s son, E.T. Galt, founded what would become the Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company. He secured land by the St. Mary River and hired Mormons to build canals. In 1912, he sold the company to the CPR; within a decade, farmers were irrigating 65,000 acres, and the westward movement of immigrants and easterners ploughed ahead. In heeding his father’s ambition, Galt showed that southern Alberta was not, as Palliser had said, where dreams go to perish. It’s where they went to be resurrected.

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“Generally, anything you see is supported by irrigation,” Lazarus says, pointing left and right as we drive along the gravel of Highway 52. He’s talking about more than agriculture – irrigation stimulates wetlands, recreational facilities and real estate development, which is evident as we drive past a row of towering, well-manicured properties. He says the SMRID supplies water for a new lake in Lethbridge, and mimics the sound of an explosion. “Property values,” he says. Electricity, too: he guides me through the Raymond Reservoir Hydroelectric Plant, one of three along the St. Mary Main Canal.

Our last stop is the Ridge Reservoir. Lazarus parks on a stretch of gravel between two bodies of water, from which we overlook the beginning of the SMRID. Water flows from the mouth of the diversion weir into a lake where people camp and fish for trout, pike and whitefish. A lone trailer sits in the distance, not far from the water. Lazarus points to a starling, an invasive species of bird, as it takes flight. “You know why we have starlings here? Because some jackass loved Shakespeare so much he tried to recreate Shakespearean-type animals in New York’s Central Park.” Like the starling, settlers to southern Alberta arrived because of naïve ambition, and stayed because they conquered their new habitat.

 

Will van Roessel gives me directions to his farm on the SMRID’s eastern reaches. Three of them involve irrigation canals. He says he’ll be the only farmer waving from the ditch, and there he is, spindly and genial in a T-shirt and baseball cap, clipping his phone back to his belt. I arrive as dusk sifts down on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, which we can see from the cabin of his combine. Van Roessel is the kind of farmer who ponders your question carefully before answering, and whose calmness masks a deep intellect. This is his sixth crop of hemp, he says. This year, he seeded the plant over a wider area than his irrigation pivot can reach and the plants on the perimeter haven’t done well. “It was so dry this year that they didn’t even come out of the ground,” he says.

Hemp has been billed as a miracle crop, ripe for making clothes, paper, fuel and building supplies like “hempcrete.” The hemp revolution hasn’t happened, but Canada did export more than $40 million worth of hemp products in 2013, and Alberta is the country’s second-largest producer, after Manitoba. It can generate returns of $700 per acre, and in 2014, it fetched $0.80 per pound while canola – Van Roessel’s other main crop – sold for $0.18.

But hemp is far from the only specialty crop grown in the region. Area farmers grow spearmint, dill and mustard seed, which together account for 14 per cent of irrigated land.

Van Roessel grew up one mile south of here. His father came from Holland in 1954 and worked on farms throughout the area before starting his own in 1960. “That’s the main reason he came here,” Van Roessel says, gesturing to a 400-metre pivot that circles a quarter section. “Irrigation was new. It offered some new opportunities for people to start farming, and it was a chance to start with a smaller land base and grow more valuable crops.”

Members of the irrigation districts pay between $11 and $40 per hectare per year for their water and have to buy and maintain their pivots, which can cost $100,000. And high-value crops mean high-risk farming. But the payoff reverberates throughout Alberta. On the low end, the output of irrigated crops like peas or the famed Taber corn is about $2 million. Beans, in the mid-range, approach $25 million. And on the high end, there’s the McCain Food plant east of Lethbridge that contributes $245 million annually to the provincial economy. Other potato-processing plants employ hundreds and make products for Frito-Lay, Old Dutch and Maple Leaf. Then there’s livestock: Alberta’s cattle sector, which exports almost $2 billion of beef every year, uses irrigation for feed, drinking water and pasture. Sixty per cent of feeder cattle in the region are associated with irrigated farms.

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The next day, I drive down Highway 509 into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and past a “No Trespassing” sign. The Blood Tribe reserve is the largest reserve in Canada, at 1,400 square kilometres, and its irrigation network is the country’s largest privately owned system. But it’s a recent development. In 1991, the band incorporated the Blood Tribe Agricultural Project (BTAP). With that came a $60-million investment in irrigation infrastructure. The reserve has 104 pivots, most of which are half a mile long.

At the forage-processing facility, I meet Cyrus Weasel Fat, the plant’s manager, in a warehouse filled with bales and conveyor belts. Eighty per cent of the product is Timothy hay; the remainder is alfalfa or wood chips for horse stables. The bales are trucked to Calgary where they get on a train to Vancouver or Toronto. Twenty per cent of the hay goes to the Middle East, the U.K. or Asian countries like South Korea. Eighty per cent goes to Japan, where Weasel Fat travels twice a year. “The Japanese are very particular. They want it perfect,” he says.

Amid sky-high feed prices, irrigation-produced forage is a godsend with a dividend. Four years ago, the forage department had 3,500 acres; this year, it has 11,000 and is planting 2,000 more in the spring. The plant runs 24 hours a day and in the summer employs more than twice its normal staff. The value of the product in this warehouse alone is more than $2 million – and there are seven more warehouses nearby.

Our next stop is a potato storage facility. I meet Peter Kamper, who came to Canada from Holland a decade ago and with his father leases land from BTAP. Alberta’s potato industry is a $1-billion-per-year business, and, assisted by irrigation, per-acre yields in southeast Alberta exceed those of Manitoba and P.E.I. – the country’s largest potato producers – by 25 per cent. Soon we continue, passing a feedlot where young workers connect irrigation pipeline to a lagoon. Phil Eagle Bear, BTAP’s operations manager, says the volume of water the reserve uses is immense – somewhere between two to three cubic metres per second – but the reserve only uses five per cent of its allocation, leaving the door open for expansion.

“If it wasn’t for irrigation, we wouldn’t have all these projects,” Eagle Bear says as the van lurches over a Texas gate. “It provides so many jobs for our band.” And he hopes it will increase: currently, 60 per cent of BTAP’s acreage is leased to non-tribal members. He wants irrigation to be the force that re-settles the reserve – not just in population but in economics. Calvin Cross Child, BTAP’s general manager, told me that almost $100 million in profits leaves the reserve every year. It’s profitable to lease the land, he says, but more so to farm it. To that end, the Kainai Board of Education has partnered with Lethbridge College to form the Blood Tribe Agricultural Training Initiative. This summer it graduated 26 students – some of whom we saw connecting the pipeline. The Blood Tribe has been seized by staggering unemployment – 30 per cent as of February 2015 – and Eagle Bear sees agricultural initiatives as a remedy. When I leave, he suggests that I come back in a year or two, hinting at the leaps and bounds his band will take.

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Just days after Eagle Bear’s tour, a fire broke out at the forage-processing plant late in the night. It destroyed the $2 million worth of product waiting for export. The chief of the Blood Tribe, Charles Weasel Head, said it will “set back our operations immensely.” But it’s hard to believe it will do the same for Eagle Bear’s spirit. Because whether you find inspiration in Galt’s determination to build a new Eldorado, or in the Blood Tribe’s own prosperity, or in the fact that the general manager of the largest district is named Lazarus, southern Alberta, with irrigation as its lifeline, is a land on the rise.


Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.