"Without water, we wouldn't be here": Alberta irrigation district raises concerns over blocked access to water

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Editors note: This story has been updated as of April 25, 2022.

Farmers are all well aware of what happens when mother nature turns off the water tap, but what happens when human-engineered access to water is suddenly blocked?

Water users in the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District (LNID) in southern Alberta are currently facing this fear. One of the hard-hit areas of the drought, the LNID serves approximately 200,000 acres of irrigated cropland, and provides water to much of Alberta’s feedlot alley, the largest concentration of cattle in Canada.

The water the LNID receives comes from the Oldman River dam, which has been opposed by some members of the nearby Piikani Nation reserve dating back to its completion in 1991.

Multiple sources say members of the Piikani Nation — for reasons still yet to be clarified — are blocking water from reaching the LNID, as of April 21. There are indications there has been a break in the original agreement that was made between the Alberta government and the Piikani tribe, back in 2002.

The LNID, meanwhile, held its annual general meeting April 21, 2022 in Picture Butte, and the uneasiness in the room was evident, as farmers provided the district board with many questions. “What is plan B?” “What is being done to the resolve the dispute?” And higher up on the question list — “why weren’t producers informed earlier?”

John Vandenberg, chair of the LNID, says communication hasn’t been forthcoming, and that he only found out about any issues on April 20. Although there was little consensus at the meeting, credible sources say this is a discussion that has been ongoing for months, without the irrigation district or farmers involved.

“I’m sure that Alberta Environment and Parks minister knows what the issues are, but they can’t speak about it. So we know nothing,” says Vandenberg.

“There are hundreds of thousands of cattle,” he explains.”We’ve got dairy, we’ve got chicken, we’ve got pigs. We have everything that we supply water to. Water is very important to us. Without water, we wouldn’t be here.”

The message at the LNID meeting was clear — this isn’t an issue that will only become dire in the next few weeks if there is no resolution. The situation is urgent, and it’s urgent now.

“We have a lot of feedlots that are calling us every day: ‘we’re out of water,’ or ‘we’ve got barely any water left in our pond; we might be good for a day or two. Can we get water?'” Vandenberg explains. “They are very desperate. We don’t know how we’re going to do this.”

The irrigation district and the government are working to get the dispute settled as quickly as possible, but some farmers aren’t so sure that everything is being done to put this on the forefront of the decision-makers minds.

One feedlot owner joined the discussion by saying if this isn’t dealt with quickly, it will quickly become an animal welfare issue, as the cows won’t have access to their basic needs.

As Vandenberg explains in the video below, this isn’t just an issue of getting water to the cows and other animals — water is also needed to produce feed, in an already short-on-feed area.

If this continues on throughout the summer, LNID will have to come up with a plan; but for now, short of pumping from nearby lakes, they feel as if they have their hands tied.

“We don’t know what we could possibly do. We can serve water until Keho Lake is empty to the east, if that’s the choice we do, but that would be a really bad choice to have Keho Lake empty,” he says.

Paul Hamnet, press secretary for Jason Nixon, Minister of Alberta Environment and Parks, in a statement to RealAgriculture says that Alberta’s government is working to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.

“Ministers have been meeting with Piikani Nation elected officials to hear and understand Piikani Nation concerns since this government was elected in 2019. The dialogue between officials has been respectful and productive. We are also aware of the concerns of the farmers and cattle producers in the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District who urgently need this water,” Hamnet says.

“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.”

RealAgriculture has reached out to Nate Horner, the Minister of Alberta Agriculture, Forestry, and Rural Development’s office, with no comment provided. We have also been unable to get comment from members of the Piikani Nation.

Check out the full conversation between John Vandenberg and RealAgriculture’s Kara Oosterhuis at the Lethbridge North Irrigation District annual meeting, below:

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