Concerns — and confusion — rise over lack of water flowing to Lethbridge irrigation district

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Update, as of late April 26: The Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District says it has been advised a deal has been reached between the Alberta government and the Peigan Nation that will allow water to begin flowing to the district. Read more here.

There are conflicting accounts on what is happening, and the reason why, but it appears water is not yet flowing to the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District (LNID), raising urgent concerns about animal welfare in the heart of Alberta’s “feedlot alley.”

On April 20, 2022, the irrigation district that supplies water to approximately 200 thousand irrigated acres of farmland and many feedlots in southern Alberta said it was made aware that it would have no water flowing to its district from the Old Man dam, as negotiations were ongoing between Alberta Environment and Parks and the Piikani Nation reserve, where the dam is located.

Multiple sources told RealAgriculture that members of the Piikani Nation were blocking water from reaching the LNID, however, Piikani chief Stan Grier says this is not true, and that no water is being blocked.

“The Piikani Chief and Council have been working constructively for years to resolve outstanding issues and ensure that Piikani’s interests are preserved as part of what is a massive water infrastructure project on our land that directly affects [The Piikani Nation],” he says, in a statement shared with RealAgriculture.

He acknowledges the Piikani Nation has been meeting with the Alberta government to address the long-standing water issue.

“There have been direct communications with [Minister of Indigenous Relations, Rick Wilson] on this issue,” Grier says. “At present, the Province has proposed an agreement. Piikani has replied with a counter. We are waiting for a response to that. Unfortunately, in advance of conclusion of talks, there have been many instances of Ministry of Environment contractors conducting work on our Reserve Lands. Needless to say, that is unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, as of April 25, 2022, in a letter that went out to water users, the LNID says it was hopeful that meetings this past weekend between the province and the First Nation would result in an agreement; however, that did not happen.

Even if water were to be allowed through immediately, the LNID warns it takes five to seven days after that initial opening for water to travel from the Old Man River. The LNID is also asking members of the district to notify the LNID office to let them know how many days of water storage they have left, and the number of animals that are at each location.

Paul Hamnet, press secretary for Jason Nixon, Minister of Alberta Environment and Parks, also sent a statement to RealAgriculture, acknowledging that the “government is working in good faith and in the spirit of reconciliation with Piikani Nation to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.” He adds that the Government of Alberta recognizes and respects the Piikani First Nation’s treaty rights as affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

“Alberta’s government has had a Settlement Agreement with Piikani First Nation and the Government of Canada since 2002 to permit Alberta access to the headworks to supply water to the Irrigation District. Any access to Reserve land that occurred by government officials were for repairs and safety reasons, as legally defined by conditions of the Agreement and accompanying access permits,” says Hamnet.

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