What is it?
Agriculture is the practice of cultivating soil, producing crops and raising livestock. We are all familiar with traditional agricultural crops (e.g., wheat) and livestock (e.g., cattle), but agriculture also includes flower farming, medicinal plant farming and fish farming.
Agricultural products are essential for our survival. They are a large part of Alberta’s economy and are an important contribution to the global food chain.
How does agriculture impact water quality in the Bow River Basin?
The inputs that are used for agriculture (e.g., feed and fertilizers) and the wastes that are produced (e.g., manure) are all parts of the food production cycle. However, if these inputs or wastes enter the broader water system they may have negative impacts, such as eutrophication of water bodies and damage to aquatic ecosystems. Sources include:
- pesticides, fertilizers and manure entering surface water through runoff;
- contaminants entering groundwater through infiltration or leaching; and
- increased nutrient loading from animal waste and fertilizers.
Learn more about fertiliser and manure on the Nutrients fact page.
In addition to inputs and wastes, agricultural activities themselves can lead to water quality issues. Livestock drinking water from streams, for example, can damage stream banks, affecting both bank stability and vegetation. As well, soil blowing off of tilled fields can lead to increased sediment in streams. Sediment in streams can damage the eyes and gills of fish and aquatic insects; reduce sunlight in the water; and smother plants, fish eggs and invertebrates.
What can we do about it?
There are numerous Best Management Practices (BMPs) that farmers use to minimize their impact on water quality. Alberta’s Environmental Farm Plan is a voluntary, individual self-assessment tool for farmers to identify their environmental risks and create mitigation plans, which often include BMPs. Some BMPs and actions that agricultural producers and individuals can take include:
- Ensure there is a vegetated buffer zone between creeks and any areas where fertilizers are applied. This will limit the amount of nutrients entering the water via runoff.
- Ensure surface water and groundwater are not contaminated by animal waste. For example, different types of natural and synthetic liners underneath manure storage sites can protect surface water and groundwater.
- Adjust grazing intensity, keep livestock out of sensitive areas, provide alternative sources of water and shade, and promote re-vegetation of ranges, pastures, and riparian zones.
- Implement nutrient management plans that combat nutrient losses, help maintain high yields, and save fertilizer costs.
- Keep chickens, livestock and compost heaps away from any water bodies.
Where can I find more information?
Utah State University Extension. (2017). Water quality – Agricultural uses of water. Retrieved from: http://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/agriculturewq/
Hofer, B. (2017, Oct. 19). Agricultural impacts on water quality in Alberta: an initial assessment. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Retrieved from: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$Department/deptdocs.nsf/all/irr15532
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forests and water quality. Retrieved from:http://www.fao.org/docrep/011/i0410e/i0410e04.pdf