PUBLISHED: 24 February 2022

The Economics of Alberta Irrigation


Alberta’s irrigation districts, situated within the South Saskatchewan River Basin, represent the most diversified and intensive irrigation development in Alberta. Over 83% (560,520 hectares) of Alberta’s irrigated land is found in the 12 irrigation districts. This area represents only 4.4% of Alberta’s cultivated land base. 

Annually, irrigation related activities in Alberta’s 12 irrigation districts generate: 

  • $5.4 billion to provincial GDP, 
  • $3.2 billion in labour income, and 
  • support about 46,000 full-time equivalent jobs. 

80% of the total GDP generated by the irrigation districts accrues to the region and province and 20% to irrigation producers. 

Examining the benefits relative to water delivery, every cubic metre of water delivered for irrigation and other related uses generates $4.06 to provincial GDP, $2.70 in labour income, and 37 full time equivalent jobs. 

Impacts on Crop and Livestock Production and Agri-food processing

Irrigated crop and livestock production directly impact the economy through production and sales of primary agricultural product and employment. Primary agriculture products processed at Alberta agri-food facilities creates further economic impacts. Irrigated land within Alberta irrigation districts generates: 

  • 27% of the total provincial primary agriculture sales. 
  • Crop sales of $1.076 billion, representing 17% of total provincial crop sales. 
  • Livestock sales of $2.2 billion which represents 38% of Alberta’s total livestock sales. 
  • 28% of Alberta’s total Agri-food GDP. 
  • 24% of total provincial employment related to crop and livestock production and associated food processing. 

Additional economic impacts related to irrigated land in Alberta: 

  • Specialty crops generate almost 50% of the irrigation-related crop sales on about 22% of the irrigated land base within irrigation districts. 
  • The cattle feeding sector contributes about 83% of the total irrigation-related livestock sales.

Impacts from irrigation infrastructure operations, maintenance and rehabilitation

Annual operation and maintenance of irrigation district infrastructure is the sole responsibility of each irrigation district and includes such things as maintenance of irrigation infrastructure; water delivery operations; district administration and operation and maintenance of equipment and small structures. Several districts are responsible for funding the maintenance and operation of grazing leases, electrical power generation and main canal operations. The total annual expenditure by all districts for operations and maintenance was approximately 26.5 million during the period 2011 to 2019. 

Rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure has been ongoing since the late 1960s. Irrigation districts and the Government of Alberta both invest in rehabilitation activities. Since 1969 the Government of Alberta has provided funding through the Irrigation Rehabilitation Program (IRP) with 75% of the annual funds contributed by the Government of Alberta and 25 % by irrigation districts. Government funding under the program varies from year to year. Irrigation districts also direct additional district funds to undertake rehabilitation activities separate from the IRP. From 2011 to 2019 the total Government of Alberta and irrigation district funding directed to rehabilitation was $53.2 million dollars, with 62.5% funded by irrigation districts and 36.5% funded by the Government of Alberta. 

The economic impact of infrastructure operation, maintenance and rehabilitation is significant. 

  • Every $1.00 invested by the Government of Alberta in irrigation district related activities generates $3.56 in revenue to the province. 
  • Operation, maintenance, and rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure in southern Alberta generates about $102 million annually to provincial GDP, about $76 million in labour income and supports about 824 full time equivalent (FTE) positions. Most of the FTEs and labour income is attributed to the service sector. 
  • Irrigation district operations, maintenance and rehabilitation activities provides the Government of Canada with about $1.057 billion in annual fiscal revenues. 

Non-Irrigation Benefits

The presence of irrigation water conveyance infrastructure supports water access for non-irrigation uses of water including hydropower generation, other agricultural activities, municipalities, industry, businesses, drought mitigation and recreational opportunities. 

  • About $51 million is saved annually by supplying water through irrigation infrastructure for agricultural, commercial, industrial, and municipal uses. The savings generate about $106 million to GDP every year. 
  • Irrigation related hydropower generation facilities annually generate $10 million of green energy providing $7.0 million to provincial GDP. 
  • 436,500 annual visitor person-days of activity associated with 57 irrigation-related reservoirs contribute $14 million to provincial GDP and $9 million in labour income. 
  • The value of irrigation in a drought year is estimated to be about $127 million.