Water restrictions in southern Alberta unlikely to lift without significant change in reservoir levels

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Drought conditions in the last couple of years have led to St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID) south of Lethbridge signing new water sharing memorandums of understanding amongst users in four sub-basins of southern Alberta.

Without a significant change in reservoir levels, the water allocation for the 2024 year stands at eight inches of water per acre at the farm gate. Last year, the allocation for water in the same district was 14 inches per acre.

SMRID is the largest irrigation district in North America encompassing over 500,000 acres.

Southern Alberta currently finds itself in the most acute drought cycle seen by the area since the drought of 2001. While these drought cycles are not uncommon in the last 900 years, the current drought has led to low reservoir storage in all of southern Alberta, an area that partially relies on the mountain snowpack, which was less than normal this past season, says David Westwood, general manager of SMRID.

While the district is in better shape storage-wise than during the drought of 2001, a higher population in the area has led to more demand on water.

Irrigation is critical to the intensity of agriculture in the district. Westwood says with these restrictions producers that are seeding high value, higher water-need crops, such as potatoes, might look at seeding potentially less of the one crop and more of a grain or cereal crop. They can then transfer allocation from the lower water use crops to augment the water that they would want to put on the higher use crop.

In this interview, Shaun Haney of RealAgriculture is joined by Westwood to discuss the water situation in southern Alberta, future plans for the irrigation districts, and the effect that restrictions will have on producers:

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