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Irrigation crisis threatens food supply

40 per cent of world's crops come from irrigated land

The Ottawa Citizen

Adrian Wyld, The Ottawa Citizen St. Mary Irrigation District operations manager Myles Kasun oversees a system that delivers water through 2,060 kilometres of canals and pipes to about 150,000 hectares of land south of the Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

When the well is dry we'll finally realize what water is worth, Benjamin Franklin once said.

The well's not dry in southern Alberta, but this summer in the St. Mary River Irrigation District, it's half empty. As a result, farmers and businesspeople are learning what water is worth and have discovered that it can be one of the most valuable commodities they have.

Canada's largest farming irrigation district is coping with this summer's severe drought by rationing, sharing, and developing a free market for water that is allowing farms and businesses to keep their operations wet enough to survive.

In the St. Mary district, water normally worth $10 to $20 an acre foot is selling for as much as $120 an acre foot this summer. (An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with water one foot deep. There are about 1,233 cubic metres in an acre foot, and 1,000 litres in a cubic metre.)

What is happening on a small scale in southern Alberta, is occurring throughout the world where there are water shortages, particularly in the parched southwestern United States. There, farmers have realized that the water they are pouring on their fields is worth far more on the open market than the crops they are producing.

Nowhere is the world water shortage felt more acutely than in irrigated farming districts, which consume 70 per cent of all freshwater on the planet.

Whereas the southern regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan depend on irrigated agriculture, Canada is still a relatively small player in the irrigated agriculture business. The United States, China, India and Pakistan account for more than half of all the irrigated land in the world.

Although only 18 per cent of cultivated land is irrigated, about 40 per cent of the world's crops are harvested from irrigated land. The world's food supply depends on irrigation, a system that is now in peril.

"The irrigation base is quite vulnerable," says Sandra Postel, director of the World Water Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, who has written extensively about water and farming issues.

"It needs attention to ensure its sustainability, attention it is not currently getting. There are just so many areas you can point to now where rivers are running dry, where groundwater is being overtapped, where there are clear signs there's just not additional water to tap into. We're essentially using most of it."

According to the World Watch Institute, under the North China Plains, that country's breadbasket, water tables are falling at a rate of 1.5 metres a year. Farmers are using diesel- and electric-powered pumps, drilling deeper and depleting aquifers.

In India, twice as much water is being pumped out of aquifers as is being recharged by rainfall. According to the International Water Management Institute, a quarter of India's grain harvest could be lost because of aquifer depletion in a country that is adding 18 million mouths to feed each year.

Beneath the Great Plains of the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer is being mined to the point where farmers are being forced to take irrigated lands out of production, for example in Texas at a rate of one per cent a year.

"It's getting harder to expand the water supply generally, but especially in the regions that need the additional water, because that's where the intensive development has already occurred," Ms. Postel says. "That's where we're finding signs of water stress and unsustainable water use already. These are the areas where you have the productive soils, where agriculture has been highly developed, and where you do need water for irrigation.

"I think it will be difficult to keep expanding irrigated agriculture, even though a lot of food analysts predict that irrigated land will provide as much as 80 per cent of the additional food that we're going to need over the next 25 or 30 years. I think that's going to be tough, because most of it is going to have to come from increased productivity on the land that already exists, rather than expanding irrigation to new land."

Ms. Postel says a starting point for dealing with this water shortage will be to grow crops where they should be grown, and address the issue of subsidized water. If farmers are pouring heavily subsidized water on their fields, they have no incentive to conserve, or to grow crops more suitable to the land they are farming.

"Because water is so heavily subsidized, we have a lot of production of lower-value crops in areas where those crops shouldn't be grown, where water is scarce and it would be better to grow something else there rather than such a thirsty crop," she says. "This occurs in areas of the world from Egypt to California where you are growing thirsty crops in a desert."

This summer, farmers in southern Alberta are showing what is possible when farmers are given an incentive to conserve water, when the scarcity of water is recognized and the resource is given a proper price.

The St. Mary Irrigation District delivers water through 2,060 kilometres of canals and pipes to about 150,000 hectares of land south of the Oldman and South Saskatchewan Rivers between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

Construction of the system began more than 100 years ago, directed by the Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company in an effort to entice settlers to the area. Mormon settlers from Utah, who were already experts in designing irrigation systems, were contracted to carry out the early construction work.

Today the system has five major storage reservoirs in the mountains of southwestern Alberta that release water onto the plains during the dry summer months. The irrigation system has allowed the semi-arid region to become a major producer of sugar beets, potatoes, beans, corn, sunflowers, alfalfa, canola and flax.

The system also supplies water to towns, villages, rural residences and industry.

Farmers pay between $10 and $20 an acre foot for water and a start-up fee of $300 an acre when they put more land under irrigation.

At these prices, Alberta farm water is relatively cheap, although the fees are higher than the highly subsidized water in the southwestern United States, where farmers receive water for as little as $3.50 U.S. an acre foot.

The fees collected by the irrigation district cover the operating costs and maintenance of the system, although the Alberta government subsidizes the capital costs of the major construction work.

The irrigation system ran into trouble during last summer's drought, when there were huge demands for water. The system's managers plan to have about 500,000 acre feet in the reservoirs before the snow falls; last fall the reservoirs had been depleted to about 200,000 acre feet. Then the unthinkable happened -- it didn't snow as much as usual in the mountains.

"We had very low snowpack in the mountains, which supplies the reservoirs with storage," says Myles Kasun, the district's operations manager. "We weren't able to fill the reservoirs."

There were about 400,000 acre feet of water in the reservoirs after spring runoff instead of the 800,000 acre feet the system needs.

The managers of the system realized they were in trouble, and during the winter held a series of meetings with all the users. They knew there would be water rationing. The question was, would they deliver some water to everyone who has a licence, or continue with the "first in time" system that would have left hundreds of users without any water at all?

"If you go on priority, it's first-come, first-served no matter what your use is," Mr. Kasun says. "It would have been all used up" by the earlier licence holders.

Instead of leaving hundreds of farms and businesses high and dry, the community agreed that everyone would receive some amount of water, and they would allow this water to be transferred and sold on the open market.

"This water-sharing agreement made things a lot easier for the whole community," Mr. Kasun says.

In the end, everyone received 10 inches of water per acre of irrigated land, about 60 per cent of their normal allotment.

On average, farmers need about two feet of water per acre for their crops. Some years they receive half of that water in rain and half in irrigation. In years such as this when there's been little rain, they would receive most of it in irrigation. For many farms, 10 inches of water per acre won't be enough.

"An industry or intensive livestock operation pretty much needs the same amount every year," Mr. Kasun explains. "They'll get 60 per cent for their normal contract, and they'll have to go buy the balance of the 40 per cent from somebody else's allocation." Farmers who have chosen to take land out of production and sell their water are being compensated by free-market prices as high as $120 an acre foot.

Towns and villages have simply been asked to ration, to cut back on lawn watering and non-essential water uses.

The reservoirs will be depleted again this fall. However, one winter of heavy snowfall could turn the situation around.

Farmers in the southwestern United States are also selling their water this year.

This spring, farmers in the Columbia River Basin were being paid not to irrigate their crops so the massive hydroelectric generators along the river could supply power to California. Irrigation farmers were being paid $40 U.S. an acre not to farm.

The strange economics of this arid region of the U.S. have resulted from a combination of severe drought and problems with electricity supply.

In this region, water is heavily subsidized. When the massive Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in the 1930s, farmers received millions of dollars in irrigation subsidies. Now, the agency that markets electricity on the Columbia River is paying 800 farmers a total of about $30 million U.S. for their water.

The New York Times quotes historian Paul Pitzer, who says farmers in the Columbia basin have always felt "no price is too high to pay for their water, so long as someone else is paying for it."

The problems with irrigation run deeper than subsidized water and scarcity of supply.

When land is extensively irrigated without proper drainage, salt builds up in the soil and farming becomes impossible. This problem has been traced back to ancient civilizations, and is believed to have caused the demise of the world's first irrigation-based society, the Sumerians who settled in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq.

"We have a problem with it today," says Ms. Postel. "It hasn't been solved. The estimates are that about one-fifth of all irrigated land in the world is suffering from some degree from the buildup of salt in the soil from irrigation.

"Over time that diminishes the productivity of the land, and if it gets really bad the land has to come out of production. That's a problem we see in almost all the major irrigated areas, particularly in semi-arid or arid areas. Most of the major irrigators have this problem -- China, India, Pakistan, the United States."

In Pakistan, two million hectares have been taken out of production because soil has been poisoned by salt. In central Asia, the Aral Sea has been reduced to half its size, turning the surrounding countryside into a salt-poisoned desert. Canadian author Marq de Villiers calls the Aral Sea the world's worst human-caused environmental catastrophe.

Ms. Postel says the solution is to increase water productivity through more effective irrigation technology. Only about half of the water farmers pour on their fields actually benefits crops.

"It's a combination of increasing efficiency, reducing waste of water, getting more output for every litre of water we take out of a river or aquifer," she says.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 18, 2001

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