Water security and the future of Southern Alberta
On a smoky August morning I piled into a bus alongside Councillors and administrators from Coutts, Milk River, Warner, and Warner County for a long drive across the wind-swept wheat fields near the border to tour the vital infrastructure that delivers life-giving water to our irrigation systems and municipalities. Our destination was the Lake Sherburne Dam and the St. Mary Diversion Dam south of Carway in Northern Montana.
Our objective was to examine the crumbling assets that are long overdue for replacement and upon which so many livelihoods depend.
Built circa 1919, the two dams and the diversion capture winter and spring precipitation so that the St. Mary River and the Milk River can provide water downstream to irrigation districts and municipalities all year long. The Milk River is no longer glacier fed, and without diverting water from the reservoir, would run dry each year by August, causing significant shortages downriver. Everywhere we went we saw crumbling concrete, exposed rebar, and disintegrating steel. The impressive siphon tubes that carry water down and up out of valleys were covered in welded patches, applied each winter to keep the system working just one more year... year after year, well passed its lifespan. The potential of a catastrophic failure grows more and more likely day after day.
Driving past well-irrigated southern Alberta farmland with vast pivots spouting streams of water, it's easy to forget that we live in a semi-arid region which was initially classified as unfit for agricultural development. Early settlers encountered dry and inhospitable grasslands where now some of the most diverse and versatile croplands in North America flourish. This transformation was due to the foresight of early governments who championed the construction of a network of irrigation districts and reservoirs across southern Alberta.
For 100 years, this network served as the foundation of regional economic growth. It has fed our growing towns and cities, and is the lifeblood upon which we have built one of the most powerful and resilient agri-food industrial clusters in the world.
In 2018, Southern Alberta is faced with two futures. On the one hand, economic opportunity has come knocking and we have the chance to become one of the bread-baskets of the world. Climate change, booming middle class populations in pacific-rim nations, and the growth of global trade presents us with the chance to rapidly expand and diversify our agri-food industries, capitalizing on our knowledge-workforce and industry expertise, and taking advantage of our amazing irrigated cropland. The opportunity is astounding, the demand for our products is real, and the political environment is ripe.
However, all of this rests on a secure and stable water supply. Rising global temperatures are eroding the glaciers that supply us with year-round flow at the same time that humidity and precipitation levels are dropping in a sustained downward trend (www.albertaclimaterecords.com). We are becoming more and more reliant on our reservoirs at a time when there is decreasing political will to develop more. Intensifying development, growing populations, and climate pressures have but an incredible strain on the local ecology, and reservoir developments are very environmentally disruptive, making it next to impossible to make meaningful progress towards their development.
Meanwhile the clock keeps ticking, the concrete and steel disintegrates faster and faster, and the glaciers recede meter by meter.
If Southern Alberta wants to seize the opportunity that has been presented to us, and pass down a legacy of prosperity to our children, we need to start planning purposefully towards a sustainable water future for our region, and we need to do it in a way that respects and preserves the environment which must bend to accommodate that future.
In another hundred years, our children's children's children will either look back on us today and praise our prescience, cooperation, and industry in building the assets that give the region a sustainable economic future, or they will shake their heads in condemnation for their forebears' lack of foresight.
(Peter Carurella is the manager of Southgrow economic initiative in Lethbridge)