By Trevor Busch
The 2023 growing season has seen its fair share of difficulties for the St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID).
“It’s been a challenging season, but overall pretty good,” said David Westwood, general manager for the SMRID.
Water storage levels in a number of reservoirs that feed the SMRID system were not at full capacity to start the irrigation season in 2023.
“So we did not go into this season with full storage in the entire St. Mary’s project – that includes the government-owned headworks of St. Mary Reservoir, Waterton Reservoir, Belly Reservoir, especially St. Mary’s, which is the largest reservoir in the entire system – that was definitely not full and never did get the full supply level this year,” said Westwood. “And then obviously the remaining reservoirs in the St. Mary district, we were in pretty good shape there. But the challenge we had was the snowpack was below normal, it was probably in that lower to mid-quartile range. And it was definitely below average and it melted off extremely quickly due to warm temperatures this spring. Normally, we would see snowpack in a typical year last right into early July. And this year, it was pretty much melted off by I’d say early June, about a good month ahead of schedule.”
Not surprisingly, starting out the season with less than ideal water levels eventually compounded resulting in water supply issues later in the year for the SMRID.
“So coupled with the fact that the volume wasn’t there, and then the fact that it melted off quickly, that led to obviously lower water, but then the heat that we had early on right from the beginning,” said Westwood, referencing some hot spring temperatures not usually seen until mid-to-late summer. “If you recall, we had 30C degree temperatures in southern Alberta on the May long weekend. That’s not typical for us. That led to heavy irrigation demand right out of the gate, we were a little bit late getting started in our district towards the east in Bow Island because they had some snow over Easter and we had to clean it out of the canals. And then the script flipped really quickly, and guys started irrigating hard.”
Westwood reports that 2023 has been one of the driest years on record for southern Alberta.
“The demand never really stopped, because obviously we’ve had this long, hot, dry summer. I had some information from Alberta Agriculture, and Alberta Environment. And I believe this is the sixth driest, lack of precipitation since January 1 on record in the last 99 years. So obviously we’re having significant drought conditions, and in Alberta, that would even include some of those dustbowl days of the 1930s, the Depression era. So (we’ve) not been getting any precipitation, or significant – we’ve had an odd little rain, but nothing significant in June like we normally get in the spring. Add that to the fact that we didn’t have great storage. And we also have then had a big irrigation demand that led us to obviously having to look at what we were able to provide.”
The SMRID was forced to implement measures designed to ensure an adequate water supply would survive the growing season in 2023.
“Unfortunately, SMRID had to cut from 15 to 14 (inches). And then ultimately the 13 inches, and then on farm allocation per acre. And then we also had to end the season early on September 22. Normally, we would go to around Thanksgiving weekend, that’s kind of our typical shut off date. But now we’ve had to cut that, we’re gonna have to shut down a couple of weeks early just to make sure we (don’t) run out but also so that we do have a little bit of winter storage to try to prep for next year.”
Beyond the farm gate the SMRID has obligations to provide water to communities in the district and this has to take precedence, says Westwood.
“We provide water to quite a few communities, Coaldale and Taber basically. And they kind of rely on some of our winter storage to be able to augment whatever they’ve stored during the summer. So we were cognizant of that, too.”
Water storage is severely depressed throughout the SMRID system, and understandably Westwood declined to make any crystal ball projections.
“So storage right now in the entire system, we’re down to about 25 per cent. And it’s hard to project where we’ll end on September 22. After we shut off irrigation you’ll see it bump up obviously because there’ll be a little bit of capture and then as soon as we start getting some snow in the winter, obviously that might turn into water before it gets really, really frozen in winter. We’re obviously going to have to monitor extremely closely, depending on where we end up with what we get over the winter, and then what the snowpack looks like for next year.”
The Chin Reservoir expansion project is still on deck for the SMRID, but Westwood explained several delays will likely affect when locals see shovels hitting the ground.
“We’re a little bit behind schedule. Unfortunately, it took us a while to work with the regulators in Alberta Environment, to prep for our environmental impact assessment, we’re still trying to finalize the terms of reference of what that document will include. So I’d say we’re a good six to seven months behind where we would have liked to have been. But we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to submit it this fall now. And then depending on how long it takes them to actually go through the environmental impact, I’m anticipating that we won’t hear from the regulator that we’re good to go on the project until 2025. It could take up to a year and a half to a couple years.”
As a partner with the Municipal District of Taber, the SMRID is continuing work on the Horsefly Spillway project, and in the irrigation offseason will be completing more pipeline work and rehabilitation closer to Medicine Hat and the eastern areas of the district.
Aquatic weeds were a less pressing issue in 2023 and the district had to do very little in terms of extra control measures, reports Westwood.
“Better year for weeds, just the way that heat works sometimes it’s a challenge for algae, and we had to do some treatments this year, but we didn’t have to do excessive treating this year. The weeds, every part of the district is a little different. But for the most part weed control was I would say a little better than an average year.”