By Greg Price
There is the urgency of now when it comes to a critical bridge replacement in the Municipal District of Taber, along with a nearby drop structure, for the future of agriculture in the area.
The Bow River Irrigation District’s drop structure in question is a very large one straight south of Enchant which is immediately downstream from the bridge. The canal water level drops approximately 10 metres at the site. At that point, roughly over half of the total area of the BRID is downstream of the drop structure. With aging infrastructure of both the bridge and drop structure, failing of the drop structure would have a crippling ripple effect.
“If a drop structure were ever to fail, you can’t operate the canal without them. Bottom line is, if that drop structure fails, over half of our district would be without water,” said Richard Phillips, engineer and general manager at BRID.
One of the larger irrigation districts, BRID is approaching 260,000 acres, so the total affected assessed acres would be over 130,000 acres. The affected acreage in question is intensively farmed with high-value row crops.
Last year, according to Phillips, 30 per cent of all sugar beets in Alberta were grown downstream of Drop 5 in the BRID. Also, 22 per cent of all the potatoes and dry beans in Alberta irrigation districts were grown downstream of Drop 5.
“That’s a huge amount of acreage on high-value crops,” said Phillips, adding hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. “There are all the jobs too that are associated with that in the food-processing industry. This is not just regular farming, this is the highest-value irrigation farming that is happening downstream of Drop 5. It is the real high-value part of our district. This is absolutely critical from an economic standpoint.”
The bridge in the M.D. of Taber and drop structure were built around the same time in 1953 and both are wearing out. There is a co-dependency that both projects get done in their replacement with their close proximity to each other.
“It is absolutely time to replace this one (Drop 5),” said Phillips. “If the bridge wasn’t there, we would just replace it, but because the bridge is so close, we can’t replace the drop without replacing the bridge at the same time. We are hoping that when the province realizes the economic impact of the infrastructure there, that hopefully they can see fit and help fund a joint project between the M.D. and BRID to replace both of these pieces of infrastructure as quickly as we can.”
Phillips is hoping the joint project can be done in the fall of 2018 which would be ideal.
“I certainly would not want it delayed past that, if at all. The consequences of losing that drop would be economically disastrous to this region,” said Phillips.
Municipal District of Taber council discussed the need at its Aug. 22 meeting. Administration met with Alberta Transportation staff in Lethbridge along with the Bow River Irrigation District to discuss the current bridge file in question, which has been on the M.D. of Taber’s replacement list for quite a long time. Proper bridge funding in the region from the province has long been a sore spot for council in recent years.
Local bridge funding has been zero funded for the last seven years. Local road bridge funding is provided under a program called the Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program (STIP) which includes: the community airport program (funded to $2 million each year), the Local Road Bridge Program (funded to $21 million this year), the Resource Road Program (funded to $9.3 million this year) and the Local Municipal Initiatives Program (funded to $4.6 million this year).
“We met with their grants guy and their bridge engineer. The way it ended up, because they are bureaucratic staff, they have to follow policy set by Alberta Transportation with the STIP Program for bridge funding,” said Jack Dunsmore, director of planning and infrastructure for the M.D. of Taber at the Aug. 22 council meeting.
Dunsmore noted in the meeting with Alberta Transportation, that at an administration level, the M.D. of Taber would re-apply for STIP funding for the bridge file with an amended application.
Derrick Krizsan, CAO for the M.D. of Taber, cited a cost benefit analysis provided by the BRID in stressing the importance of the bridge replacement in question.
“If that drop structure fails, they would be required to cease delivery of water, east of that location. They figure the annual value of cops is in order of $(327) million dollars,” said Krizsan.
The Alberta Irrigation Projects Association recently commissioned a report which concluded irrigation in Alberta contributed $3.6 billion annually to the Alberta GDP, on an average irrigated area of 1,485,000 acres. Given the acres in the eastern portion of the BRID that would be affected if Drop 5 fails, the estimate of between $327 million is considered conservative in production given the relatively high proportion of higher-value specialty crops in that area which is downstream of Drop 5.
Even with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, Krizsan reviewed the struggles and challenges the M.D. of Taber has had over the years in securing bridge funding for its infrastructure from the province.
“Annually, the bridge program has a $25 million budget and this project is in order of $4 million. We made an application for seven bridges in last year’s application for a total of about a $4 million budget and we got $200,000 for some culvert work (four projects) with our own in-house construction,” said Krizsan. “The challenge is obvious and we have a big uphill battle and the impacts on communities is immense. This is one of our top priorities.”
The 170 local road bridges located in the M.D. of Taber are valued at a replacement cost in excess of $100 million. It is estimated the M.D. of Taber has road bridge projects valued at $15 million to conduct in the next decade.
Bridges are considered the responsibility of the province. As noted the M.D. of Taber’s AGM back in 2016, bridge funding has traditionally been 90 per cent provincial and 10 per cent by the municipality in question. Krizsan noted at the 2016 AGM that the M.D. of Taber will have an infrastructure deficit for just its bridges of $25 million over the next 15 years. There are 25 bridges that need to be replaced in the next 15 years. The M.D. of Taber’s entire annual budget hovered around $15 million in 2016.
The bridge in question south of Enchant has been on the M.D. radar for priority for replacement since 2009.
Recent estimates of the value of the local road bridges within municipal districts and counties in Alberta exceeds $1 billion dollars.
The MD of Taber has the second highest number of bridges in the province of Alberta among individual municipal districts and counties.
Several factors contribute to the lifespan of a bridge including soil types, water pH balance, and number of loads coming across the bridge with traffic count.
“Typically with a concrete bridge such as this one, we like to see about 70 to 75 years. If you have a lucky bridge that doesn’t see much use would be 100 years,” said Craig Pittman, public works superintendent for the M.D. of Taber in an interview with The Times during a break at council’s Aug. 22 meeting. “Bridge-sized culverts, we estimate those around the 45-50 year mark for a life span. The bridge in question is certainly an important piece of infrastructure for the agriculture industry and all the traffic leading to the Hamlet of Enchant. We were now finally able to quantify the economic impacts would be by working with BRID with what would be affected downstream from this structure.”
Also affected would be the Vauxhall Water Plant according to M.D. of Taber councillors.
“Affecting the Vauxhall Water Plant, it would affect all three communities (Vauxhall, Enchant, Hays), said Bob Wallace, councillor for the M.D. of Taber. “This isn’t just impacting farmers, it’s getting potable water into three communities.”
Wallace made a motion for to set up joint meetings for the M.D. of Taber and BRID to the necessary ministers to discuss the urgency of the bridge and drop replacements. The motion was passed unanimously.
“Strength in numbers is really important for something like this,” said Dunsmore after the motion was passed.
Phillips is looking forward to joining forces with the M.D. of Taber in accelerating the funding process for the joint bridge/drop project.
“The M.D. and BRID do work well together where that’s where it’s comfortable for us to be talking about us doing this kind of joint project dealing with both their bridge and our drop at the same time and hopefully we can make it happen,” said Phillips. “Clearly, there’s just not enough money to go around and that’s not unique to this situation. There just isn’t enough to do what needs doing. They got several bridges I’m sure that are in comparable condition that should al be replaced, but this one is unique. If it doesn’t get replaced, we can’t replace our drop. When you start looking at 30 per cent of the sugar beets and 22 per cent of the potatoes, that’s a lot of employment that hinges on the factories operating and if they were to lose that amount of their input in a year that would be disastrous regionally.”