IRRIGATION . . .


1. General Information

2. History of Irrigation in Southern Alberta

(a) Latter Day Saints...

Perhaps the first people to establish a significant agricultural settlement in this area were the Latter Day Saints of Utah. When John Ora Card, arrived in this region, fleeing from persecution, he invisioned a town established under LDS religion, supported by agriculture.  In May of 1887, after trying very hard to establish a settlment on the land in between the Belly and Waterton rivers, John Ora Card, decided to establish his relgious agrarian society on the site of Lees creek south of the Blood reserve. This site was called Cards town or Cardston. In 1890, as the times got better, and Cardston was having an economic boom, the Latter Day Saints began the envisionment of irrigation, to improve the marginal farming in the region. In the summer of 1890, several small scale irrigational projects were undertaken.
(b) Sir Alexander Galt and Irrigation...
The first large scale irrigational companies were undertaken by Lethbridge's very own tychoon, Sir Alexander Galt in 1893. As disussed in the human histories of the Oldman river, Galt was already a railroad and coal mine owner in this region, with co investors, the Northwest Coal and Navigation company. Funded by the Northwest Coal and Navigation Co. Galt began to construct canals to Margrath and Sterling of this region, supplying them irrigational water for thier dryland crops. Once again it was the resident Latter Day Saints that did most of the work for these canals. Later that year, Lethbridge residents wanted irrigation too, and paid Galt,  $30,000 towards the building of a canal that would irrigate 8065 hectares around the city.
(c) Irrigational practices of the past...
The early settlers of this region came because the soil was rich in organics, and good farming soil. The soil was called Chernozemic, often by settlers as black gold, because the soil was black. It quickly became appearant to the resident farmers that an artificial source of water as needed because less then 250mm of precipitation fell on the region of Southern Alberta. Galts great Irrigation projects brought the first water to settlers of this region. Though they did not have sophisticated piping and intricate canals, small channels of water dug throughout the farmers fields, and their land was often irrigated through periodic flooding.

It quickly became appearant to farmers the evils of flood irrigation. Salts, such as sodium and calcium carbonates quicky made the land too salty for proper plant growth, and diminished the aggregation of soil, causing wind blown losses of the ever so valuable top soils. In the nineteen thirites is an era known to this region as the dirty thirties. It was known as the dirty thirties because farmers quickly learned about their poor irrigation and farming practices. Flood irrigation, introduced far too many sodic salts into the soil, which decreased soil aggregation. Also in the thirties, there were poor levels of moisture in this region, making the soil quite dry. This made the conditions just right for winds to blow away the top soil. Its no wonder, farmers quickly changed thier irrigational practices.



3. Modern Irrigation


(click on for larger view) (Irrigation Districts in Southern Alberta, care of Alberta's Eastern Irrigation District, Can you see the importance of the Oldman River to irrigation in Alberta?)
 
There are four major types of irrigation used in Southern Alberta in the more modern era. Flood irrigaiton is still used somewhat by farmers in the sugar beet industry, but however is not very widely used in other types of crop production. Most farmers find that flood irrigation reduces soil stability, kills microbacteria that forms humus, and leaches out useful nutrients from the soil.  In flood irrigation, the canals near a farm are opened up onto a field, where the field is thus flooded with a few inches of water.  More modern irrigation uses pipes and sprinkler systems. Water is pumped from a canal 
into a series of pipes, and is distrubuted by sprinklers. There are three major types of sprinkler irrigation used in  Southern Alberta. The first is the hand move pipes, where farmers have to periodically move pipes from one site of irrigation to another, in a regular fashion as not to over irrigate a section of farm. The second type of irrigation usedby Southern Albertan farmers is Wheel move irrigation. Here the pipe and sprinkler system is attatched to wheels where a motor drives the piping system forward over a field. The farmer still has to pay close attention to where the piping moves. Another similar system gaining world popularity with farmers is pivot irrigation. Like Wheel Move irrigation, there is a systems of pipes and sprinklers which are then mounted on wheels with a motor(s) (see picture below). In pivot irrigation, the system of pipes and sprinklers move in a a circular or pivotal fashion much like the hands of a clock.  Pivot irrigation is advantageous because it allows the system to continually irrigate without the need to control how far it will go in one direction unlike the wheel move method.
 
 

(Sprinkler Irrigation)

(Sprinkler Irrigation)

(St. Mary's Dam- care of 
St Mary's River Irrigation District)

(St. Mary's Reservior- care of 
 St Mary River's Irrigation District)
Irrigation demands a large amount of water. For this large dams, and reserviors had to be constructed in order to ensure that farmers have adequate amounts of water year round. In Southern Alberta, the Oldman River Dam is the largest of reserviors (visit Oldman River Dam page of this site).  Other reserviors, older and smaller then the Oldman River Dam, are still in use. These include the St. Mary's Reservior and Park Lake Reservior.  From the large reservoirs, extend a series of canals, and secondary canals from the major canals. If you have a look at the maps page, you can see that there are a lot of canals and reserviors dotting this region of Southern Alberta.

How well is agriculture doing in Southern Alberta, Lethbridge region?
Source: Statistics Canada & Alberta Agriculture, Food & Rural Development , for the Lethbridge region only.

                     Number of Farms
                                                                                     11,216
                     Total Farm Capital
                                                                       1996
                                                                                     $11.3 billion
                     Total Gross Receipts
                                                                       1996
                                                                                     $3.1 billion
                     Total Expenses
                                                                       1996
                                                                                     $2.6 billion
As you can see, for Southern Alberta's communities, argriculture, made possible through irrigation is a major source of revenue to Southern Albertan's. In Lethbridge, it is said  farming and its spin off industries is Lethbridge's largest industry. Without irrigation from the Oldman River, such intensive agriculture would not be possible.



4.0 Future of Irrigation...
Farmers are finding that irrigation and tillage, continually degrade the soil, removing essentially nutrients, and degrading soil structure.  Some farmers have reverted to zero tillage, thereby ensuring some organics return to the soil year round. Throughout the world, trickle drop irrigation is gaining ground as a more effective form of irrigation. Here small hoses or pipes only release drop by drop moisture into the soil, and is applied directly to the soil. Advocates claim it gives more moisture directly to the plant and is an easy way to avoid the evils of over irrigation. Already Southern Alberta, trickle drop irrigation and zero tillage are gaining popularity with farmers.