Irrigation — When You’re In a Dry Hole, Don’t Dig Another One

By Lorne Fitch

One definition of a consultant is someone who looks at your watch and tells you what time it is. The recently released consultant’s report— Adaptation Roadmap for the SSRB: Assessment of Strategic Water Management Projects to Support Economic Development in the South Saskatchewan River Basin— is a mirror reflecting back the aspirations of the irrigation lobby. In fact, it provides the answer—more dams and reservoirs—instead of dealing with some foundational issues.

When facing down drought that experts say may persist, moving from supply side management of water and dealing with water demand seems prudent. The real question is, when supply diminishes how to adapt to less water.

Adaptation doesn’t happen by building more reservoirs. If this is viable, we may be the first in history to outrun the impacts of a shrinking water supply. No one else has been able to perfect this magic.
Our rivers already have less flow in them and flows are expected to decline. Reservoirs don’t create water, they just store what is available, but waste much in the process. Evaporation losses are almost a metre of water per year from each. That’s water lost to the rivers.

When stuck in an irrigation growth paradigm, it doesn’t register there is a limit to such growth. The proposed result of this “study” is a classic case of “running faster and faster to stay in the same place.” There are already 56 reservoirs in southern Alberta dedicated almost wholly to irrigation. Will building 8 more be the answer? “Yes,” says the irrigation lobby, because it’s the perennial answer.

No matter how much lobbying is done, how many new dams and reservoirs are built, climate change cannot be outrun. Even if we bankrupt the province with all the suggested engineering hubris, to the suggested tune of 5+ billion taxpayer dollars, this adaptation roadmap could lead to a dead end.

Instead of more holes that may or may not be filled with water, a different path is required. Reluctance to deal with water demand creates a wicked problem that the sales pitch in the report fails to address. If you always do what you’ve always done (build more dams and reservoirs), you’ll always get what you’ve always got (increased demand and issues of water supply). It’s a cycle in which effort to solve a given problem results in aggravation of the problem or the creation of a worse one.

Proceeding with the exuberance of dam building, without a better understanding of the variances of climate change, may well create some enormous engineering white elephants. This also ignores where the water comes from. Our future is likely to be more rain but less snow. But it is slow snow melt that keeps our rivers flowing.

Headwater forests capture that snow, retaining some of it in shallow ground water storage for later release. With our expanding land-use footprint, especially logging, we are changing the way water is trapped, stored and released. This exacerbates floods and drought.

Our forested headwaters is the ultimate “reservoir” for water yet it merits no attention in this report. Funding upstream watershed restoration and security would seem to be the first thing to consider, not more dams at the downstream end.

The glib and disingenuous statement that more reservoirs would aid fish through better flows is a whopper of a “fish tale.” This didn’t happen with any past developments and won’t happen with any future ones. There isn’t even enough flow to consistently meet the lowest common denominator, an “administrative” instream objective, which does not protect fish and aquatic life.

This breathless endorsement for more dams and reservoirs isn’t adaptation but a blatant cheerleading proposal for irrigation interests with little in the way of benefits for Albertans, other than a hefty price tag.

With this report, the irrigation lobby confirm their “adaptation roadmap” will mean our rivers are good— to the last drop.

Shifting a dominant culture and narrative of engineering the landscape for irrigation agriculture to a new perspective of learning to do with less water is a tall order. Understanding what level of water use can be sustained while keeping our rivers from death are difficult but not insurmountable challenges.
What is urgently required is an independent, objective analysis by qualified professionals on the broader questions of how to adapt to a climate change future, perhaps the driest of perfect storms, not how to expand irrigation.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.