Canada’s largest irrigation district faces challenges following another season of drought

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

The largest irrigation district in Canada is counting on above average snowpack this winter to replenish water supplies for the 2024 growing season.

The St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID), which supplies water to over 500 thousand acres of farmland in southern Alberta, is no stranger to drought, and 2023 has been the sixth driest year on record for the region dating back 99 years to the Dust Bowl days.

David Westwood, general manager of the SMRID, says that low snowpack levels over the previous winter meant reservoirs that feed the irrigation district started lower than normal. Persistently hot and dry weather throughout the spring and summer led to high irrigation demand from farmers that never really subsided.

Not only was the snowpack level low, but the rate at which everything melted in the spring was so quick, that infrastructure wasn’t necessarily able to capture it all. (Story continues below video)

“Typically because of cooler evenings in the spring, and also just cooler temperatures in the spring, the snowpack remains intact. And what we would normally see in a typically summer is that snowpack not completely melting off until July,” Westwood explains. “This year, due to those warm temperatures in the spring — plus 30 Celsius by May long weekend — the snowpack was almost completed melted by the end of May, early June — about a month ahead of schedule, and that obviously did not provide us reserves.”

With supplies down and demand up, the district had to reduce its allocation from the planned 15 inches per acre down to 13 inches to ensure water lasted through the irrigation seasons, which also had to be shortened by a couple of weeks, ending September 22. Fall irrigation has been discouraged to conserve remaining reservoir levels.

The challenges of 2023 also underscore the importance of ongoing irrigation modernization projects in the district to improve efficiency, and storage capacity, says Westwood. And of course, without irrigation — there simply wouldn’t be the wide variety of crops that are grown in the area such as sugar beets, potatoes, hemp, crops grown for seed production, and more.

As we look ahead to 2024, many irrigators are asking the question: what needs to happen before the next irrigating season in order for users to have access to water?

“We’re definitely lower than our target lower levels, so we will be hoping for a strong and above average snowpack if we’re going to be able to come back to some sort of average levels for next year,” says Westwood.

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