PUBLISHED: 08 August 2021

Alberta Irrigation: Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much new land will be irrigated because of this program?

A: There is no requirement for irrigation expansion as part of this program. However, it is likely to occur in most participating districts. Completion of projects could expand the irrigated area within the irrigation districts by over 200,000 acres. Expansion is possible due to improved water security attributable to the projects, including improved efficiencies and increased storage. However, it will be up to each district to determine how much new land they will irrigate, if any. 

Q: How does a district expand its irrigated area?

A: The process for expansion is governed by the Irrigation Districts Act (IDA). Each district has an expansion limit, which is the maximum number of irrigation acres it can have on its assessment roll. If a district wishes to increase its expansion limit, it must make information available to its irrigators regarding the impact of expansion on the available water supply for the irrigated area, hold one or more public meetings to discuss the proposed expansion, and hold a plebiscite in which existing irrigators vote in favor of or against the proposed change to the expansion limit. If a majority are in favor, then the district board can approve a bylaw increasing the expansion limit. 

Q: What regulatory approvals are required for these projects?

A: All applicable regulatory processes must be followed for all projects. Applicable processes may be different for the modernization projects as compared to the reservoir projects. The modernization projects typically involve replacing canals with pipelines. Districts have been doing similar projects for several decades, and most of the distribution system is already comprised of buried pipelines. 

The reservoir projects will all be subject to significant regulatory review as determined by the Government of Alberta and Federal regulators. 

Q: Why was the Irrigation Districts Act (IDA) amended through Bill 54?

A: The IDA requires that any district engaging in a commercial activity must obtain the approval of its irrigators to do so through a plebiscite, depending on the amount of the investment (IDA 7(1)). Commercial activity was not defined in the IDA. Based on the application and interpretation of the current legislation, as well as the relevant section of the previous legislation, it was understood that section 7 applied to commercial activities designed to generate income which are not directly related to a district’s primary purposes. Primary purposes of a district include constructing, operating, and maintaining its infrastructure (IDA 6(1)(c)). An example of a commercial activity is Irrican Power, a small hydropower producer owned by three irrigation districts. 

One of the parties to this agreement was concerned that these projects might be interpreted as a “commercial activity” under the IDA. Bill 54 amended the IDA to make it clear that “No activity carried out for the primary purposes set out in section 6(1)(c) is considered to be a commercial activity.”. 

Q: How are these projects funded?

A: The Government of Alberta is providing a grant for 30% of the eligible costs, with the remaining 70% paid by the irrigation districts. The Canada Infrastructure Bank is providing a long-term low interest loan to Irrigating Alberta Inc., a consortium of the districts involved, for 50% of the eligible costs.

Q: Will there be any changes required to water licenses because of these projects?

A: No new water licensees or allocations will be required. Depending on the wording of their existing licenses, districts with new or expanded reservoirs might require minor licenses amendments to reflect changes in their reservoir evaporation losses, but these would not increase the amount of water allocated to any district. 

Q: Which reservoirs are included in this program?

A: Chin Reservoir, which serves the St. Mary River and Raymond Irrigation Districts, and Snake Lake Reservoir in the Eastern Irrigation District will be enlarged. A new reservoir will be created in the Bow River Irrigation District at Deadhorse Coulee. The location of the fourth reservoir project has not yet been disclosed by the district involved. All four reservoir projects are off-stream storage.

Q: When will the projects be built?

A: Some modernization projects were already completed in early 2022. All modernization and reservoir projects are to be completed by the spring of 2028. 

For more information, contact