Straddling the urban-rural divide is an uncomfortable balancing act. Alberta’s Western Irrigation District, headquartered in Strathmore, has kept its balance by co-operating where it can, and getting tough when needed.
For years, the irrigation district had a rocky relationship with the city of Calgary. Stormwater from the city would wash contaminants such as salt, phosphorus, and nitrogen into the Bow River. The irrigation district draws from the Bow, just downstream of the Calgary zoo. And so those contaminants made their way into the irrigation canals.
Eventually the irrigation district took Calgary to court to get the city’s attention, Erwin Braun tells us during a media tour in late September. Braun is general manager of the Western Irrigation District.
Ultimately that hard ball tactic paid off. Calgary and the irrigation district came to a settlement through a mediator. Calgary paid for its “past sins” in the settlement, Braun says.
Calgary and Alberta Environment also created the Shepard Wetland to clean stormwater before it washes into the Bow River. The wetland is 385 acres, making it Canada’s biggest constructed stormwater treatment wetland. It can hold over six million cubic metres of water, giving it the ability to handle a one in one hundred year flood, according to the city of Calgary website.
But Calgary is far from the only urban community the irrigation district needs to work with.
The city of Chestermere has about 380 residents right on Chestermere Lake, Braun tells us. Chestermere Lake is a reservoir managed by the irrigation district. Water from the Bow runs through a provincially-owned canal to Chestermere Lake. Canal systems then funnel water north and south of the reservoir.
“This is an example of how not to have a reservoir,” Braun says. It’s easy to see how building houses right up to the water’s edge would cause problems for the irrigation district. And city residents dealt with summer flooding just this summer.
The irrigation district used to butt heads with Chestermere, Braun says. But these days the irrigation district tries to make friends before calling in the lawyers.
One of the irrigation district’s biggest problems is it can’t control land use. The district sold Chestermere the land under the docks, giving it the power to manage that area. The city in turn passed bylaws to control waterfront activity. Today the irrigation district has a comprehensive agreement with the city, Braun said, that allows it to operate. The district even keeps Chestermere Lake high enough throughout the summer to satisfy recreational users, lowering the level after Thanksgiving.
It’s not just existing towns and cities that pose potential problems for the irrigation districts. While standing on the Chestermere Lake dam, Braun points out a small development outside the city. The houses sit downstream from the dam.
The irrigation district follows stringent dam safety rules, says Braun, but he doesn’t like to see houses popping up in the flood zone.
But the Western Irrigation District’s canals and reservoirs are an attractive feature for developers.
After Chestermere, we travel to the Lakes of Muirfield, a new development in Wheatland County.
Muirfield’s developers seem to follow the “if you build a golf course, they will buy a house” school of thought. The backyards overlook the golf course. You could imagine these homes in Sherwood Park, if it weren’t for the wide-open prairie and irrigation canal separating the backyards and the course.
You have to be proactive with developers, Braun says, or else you’ll end up with a situation like Chestermere. And so when the irrigation district got wind of the Muirfield development, it was ready. The district made the developer contribute to a storm water fund to build a treatment plant. There’s a setback between the canal and homes. And backyards are fenced to keep toddlers from tumbling into the canal.
Braun is very aware of the challenges facing agriculture in an increasingly urban society. As Alberta urbanizes, people have less connection with the land, he tells us. The irrigation district is trying to keep its social licence while protecting its own interest. It leases water to CN’s intermodal terminal northeast of Calgary. And it partners with the Calgary Farmers’ Market, displaying information about irrigation, giving out free corn, and soliciting donations for the food bank.
But as Braun watches this patch of Alberta bleed farmland and inherit more infrastructure hassles, he’s wondered about a farmland freeze. Plans cross his desk for farmland, in the middle of nowhere, being rezoned, he tells us.
“Okay, now you need an interchange. You know what an interchange costs,” he says, adding that money could build schools or hospitals instead. “Now you’ve got stormwater issues. Now you’ve got water, sewer, transportation because somebody wants to get a lift on development.”
We watch golfers navigate the Lakes of Muirfield golf course as we contemplate Braun’s take on the new developments. The developer-built community numbers around 100 people. But right now residents are on the hook for costs such as trucking out sewage, the Strathmore Standard reported in the spring.
“Somebody’s putting that in their pockets because somebody’s changed the use on (the land),” Braun says of the money to be made flipping farmland. “Somebody’s made a decision about that land. That’s what we see.”
Irrigation by the numbers
Just how important is irrigation to southern Alberta?
- Alberta’s 13 irrigation districts provide water to 1.4 million acres of farmland.
- The Western Irrigation District alone supplies water to over 400 farms and 96,000 acres.
- Farmers aren’t the only ones who rely on the Western Irrigation District. Four different communities, with a total of 12,000 residents, get municipal water from the irrigation district. Across southern Alberta, 42,000 people source their household water from irrigation districts.
- Alberta’s irrigation industry adds around $3.6 billion to the province’s GDP each year. Every dollar invested in irrigation by the provincial government created $3 in revenue provincially and federally.