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Irrigation infrastructure in a field at sunset
Canadian Infrastructure Bank

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away! Alberta Farmers Need You More Every Day

Southern Alberta farmers face unprecedented challenges and water restrictions this summer due to an ongoing drought

Farmers across Canada are bracing for a challenging growing season with drought conditions, water shortages, and hot weather

Two unseasonable cold snaps in January and April have spelled the end of the growing season for the Okanagan’s stone fruit, cherries, grapes, and apples. 

Last year’s wheat production ended with 20% lower yields due to hot and dry weather in Alberta. 

This year is not expected to be different; potential water shortages will compound the situation.

Where’s The Water? 

Permaculture relies on growing crops that have biodiversity to prevent pest infestation and to increase plant cover to retain moisture | regenlivinglab.org
Permaculture relies on growing crops that have biodiversity to prevent pest infestation and to increase plant cover to retain moisture | regenlivinglab.org

Premier Smith and the Alberta government announced in spring 2024 that low snowpack and precipitation over the winter had put the province in stage 4 of 5 in its water shortage management response plan

As such, the government approached license holders in Southern Alberta to negotiate the water-sharing agreements

Municipalities in the South Saskatchewan River basin, including Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Red Deer County, Drumheller, Stettler, and Warner, have agreed to reduce water consumption by 5 – 10%. 

Irrigation districts in Southern Alberta have been told to expect a 50% reduction in their allocation for the growing season. 

In a typical year, irrigation districts provide approximately 450 mm or 18 inches of water per acre with water rights. 

A 50% water reduction means some farmers will have tough choices. 

Specialty crops like sugar beets and potatoes need 14 – 16 inches of water per acre over the growing season. 

What’s A Farmer To Do?

Regenerative agriculture focuses on building soil health without using synthetic fertilizer
Regenerative agriculture focuses on building soil health without using synthetic fertilizer | regenlivinglab.org

Some farmers are going to their neighbours to buy water from those who have extra from their water allocations 

Ross McKenzie, a former Agronomy Research Scientist, suggests that farmers without extra water use his tool to calculate how much irrigated water and estimated rainwater they need to grow their planned crops. 

Others, like the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research Centre agronomists, are breeding drought-tolerant wheat

Many farmers and ranchers worldwide are turning to regenerative agriculture techniques for local solutions to improve soil health and moisture retention. 

Regenerative agriculture and permaculture techniques have existed since humans began cultivation, which is especially evident in Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). 

Australian researcher Bill Mollison, credited as the father of modern permaculture, defines it as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

In The End

Farmers are making tough choices about what to grow and how to grow it. 

Drought isn’t going away and is likely only getting worse. 

Will Albertans finally have a conversation about the age-old problem… with only 2.2% of Canada’s freshwater, why does Alberta account for almost 70% of the irrigated acres in the country?

And what about the elephant in the room? The changing climate?

Unless action is taken to reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere, the amount of water available for our crops will decrease.

Where to Learn More

To learn more about agriculture and agri-food research in Alberta, visit the two federal research centres in Lethbridge and Lacombe

Listen to the stories of small regenerative producers in Alberta who are on the front lines of innovation and adaptation. 

Also, you can learn more about Indigenous TEK and the Three Sisters’ Agriculture Method. 

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