Wa­ter se­cu­rity and the fu­ture of South­ern Al­berta

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Alberta - BY PETER CASURELLA, SOUTHGROW

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)

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