A Water Management Success Story

From Alberta to Austrailia
Dr. Upali Hippola, P.Eng., takes part in a field trip in Austrailia.


Beginning in the 1980s, the provincial government started pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrading a somewhat neglected collection of irrigation systems in Southern Alberta. The government also began coordinating and improving the management of the South Saskatchewan River Basin.

Some Albertans thought this investment would serve only a few farmers, but in actuality it spurred an economic, water management and environmental success — one that has been vital in preserving the culture and heritage of the area, says Dr. Upali Hippola, P.Eng. Now, says the water resources consultant, the program can and should serve as a model for other parts of the world.

The province has spent $1.9 billion on the rehabilitation of 13 irrigation systems and the construction of three major flow regulation reservoirs in the basin. These projects were part of the Water Management Master Plan for Southern Alberta, and the process continues today in concert with the Alberta Government’s recently released Water for Life strategy.

About a quarter century after the work began, Dr. Hippola says the government chose the right course. Alberta, in fact, is far ahead of much of the world when it comes to irrigation infrastructure rehabilitation and water management, he says.

The civil engineer can take some pride in the work. He spent 28 years as senior water resources engineer with the province, and he designed and managed the implementation of a number of the key upgrading projects and programs in Southern Alberta.

Exportable Expertise
Dr. Hippola says the strategies and technologies developed in the semi-arid South Saskatchewan River Basin are being exported around the world. It’s a great opportunity for the Alberta engineering profession, he says, and it comes none too soon.

Prudent water management, the St. Albert engineer believes, is the key to ensuring there’s enough for everyone, everywhere.

“The challenges facing professionals working in the field of irrigation, drainage, flood control and energy production worldwide are enormous,” says Dr. Hippola. “They comprise the ability to design and operate new generations of water management systems for human needs — while sustaining ecosystems and the environment.”

Dr. Hippola took the Alberta story to the Second Asian Regional Conference of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, held March 14 to 17 in Moama, New South Wales, Australia.

Titled Basin Wide Water Management Initiatives Stimulate Century Old Irrigation Industry in Semi Arid Southern Alberta, the paper — co-authored by Brian Soutar, P.Eng., of Alberta Transportation, and Saba Gnanakumar, P.Eng., of Alberta Environment – was well received by an international audience in a country dependent on irrigation.

Australia’s irrigation infrastructure systems are about 100 years old, like Alberta’s. The difference is that there, the rehabilitation and upgrading are just beginning.

“Australia is already adopting some of the technologies developed in our rehabilitation programs, such as the use of overshot flow control gates in canals,” says Dr. Hippola. “There are more opportunities for our consulting industry to promote the technical advances we have made in Alberta, such as canal lining for seepage controls.”

How Southern Alberta Fares
The improvements in Australia could prove dramatic, if Alberta’s record is any indication. Dr. Hippola points out the ability of Southern Alberta to absorb population growth and provide water for livestock. He speaks of the development of new industries such as sugar beet processing, about an increase in hydro-power generation, and about the success of recreation areas. “Look how lush much of Southern Alberta is now,” he says.

The irrigation system’s efficiency is vastly improved. Today it comprises 17 major reservoirs, 22 smaller reservoirs and about 7,600 kilo-metres of main canals and delivery laterals. The primary sources of water are the Oldman and Bow rivers, two tributaries of the South Saskatchewan River system.

On-stream reservoirs have resulted in 60 per cent more water regulation capability in the basin. Although the evidence is anecdotal so far, it appears that downstream water quality has improved, for humans and fish habitat. Drought effects are mitigated more effectively, and Alberta more than meets its requirement to allow at least 50 per cent of the basin’s flow to continue on to Saskatchewan.

The efficiency of water delivery in the irrigation system has doubled from 30 per cent in the 1970s to 60 per cent today. The irrigated area of the basin has increased 45 per cent to more than 535,000 hectares in 13 irrigation districts.

Actual water use per irrigated hectare has dropped 31 per cent, simply through efficiency. Drainage has improved, allowing the reclamation of water-logged and saline lands. And Alberta engineers and contractors have developed leading-edge technology for rehabilitating canals under severe winter weather conditions.

The 1800s View
Not bad for an area Captain John Palliser once declared, in the 1800s, was unsuitable for agriculture and civilization. Given that early label, it’s a wonder the area opened up to farming in the first place.

For that, Alberta can thank commercial enterprises — primarily the railroads — for building the irrigation systems that allowed farming and settlement around the turn of the 20th century.

The railroad companies developed irrigation in large tracts of land granted to them by the Government of Canada. They did this to promote land sales and generate revenues, but soon found the operation of water distribution systems wasn’t profitable for them.
The Alberta Irrigation Districts Act, passed in 1915, gave farmers the power to form their own administrative and operational co-ops. Several farmer-owned irrigation districts followed in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Irrigation Necessity

It’s often said that if you give engineers challenging problems, they’ll come up with innovative solutions. Consider, then, the water-use challenges presented by Mother Nature and Alberta’s settlement patterns.

  • Most of the water is in the wrong place. The southern half of the province gets roughly 20 per cent of the Alberta’s water supply — but has 80 per cent of the total water demand, primarily for irrigation.
  • More than half the population of Alberta lives in the bottom half of the province, from Red Deer south, so there’s plenty of competition for a limited resource.
  • More than 60 per cent of Canada’s irrigated agriculture is in Alberta.
  • The irrigated area represents just four per cent of the 13 million hectares of farmland in the province. Yet it generates 20 per cent of Alberta’s annual gross farm revenue.
  • The area receives an average of only 250 millimetres of precipitation per year.
  • About 75 per cent of the annual run-off is snowmelt, most of it coming from the mountains, so managing and distributing runoff is key to the area’s economic survival.
  • Only 25 per cent of the annual precipitation falls as snow. Snow is hardly a predictable source for farmers, because those beautiful chinook winds regularly raise winter temperatures to increase melting and evaporation.
  • River flows peak in May. Left to nature, most of that water would be long gone by the time Southern Alberta fields really need it, in late July and August. “You have lots of water when you don’t need it, a shortage of supply when you do need it,” says water resources consultant Upali Hippola, P.Eng. This is the main reason why on-stream regulation, like that provided by the Oldman River Dam, is necessary.

Source: Basin Wide Water Management Initiatives Stimulate Century Old Irrigation Industry in Semi Arid Southern Alberta, by Upali Hippola, P.Eng., Brian Soutar, P.Eng., and Saba Gnanakumar, P.Eng.

The dust bowls of the Great Depression got Ottawa’s attention in a big way. The federal government created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration to provide financial assistance for water development projects in the drought-stricken Prairies. From 1935 to the early 1970s, the PFRA helped reconstruct the St. Mary, Bow River, Western and Eastern irrigation projects.

And the PFRA helped expand the irrigation infrastructure, supporting the construction of large on-stream reservoirs on the St. Mary and Waterton rivers of the Oldman River basin, and about 10 major off-stream storage reservoirs within the irrigation districts.

Province Takes Over
The province began providing support in the 1960s, through cost-sharing agreements with the irrigation districts. But the provincial government’s watershed moment, you could say, was in 1973. That’s when Canada and Alberta agreed to transfer responsibility for some provincial irrigation works to Alberta.

Follow-up agreements with irrigation districts brought headwork systems of eight irrigation districts under provincial management, with Alberta Environment responsible for their operation and maintenance.

By that time the system needed help. The canal systems were badly deteriorated. Seepage was a major problem. Many of the structures were dilapidated and outdated.
Time and a harsh climate had taken their toll. Says Dr. Hippola: “A comprehensive rehabilitation program was absolutely necessary. This was needed to upgrade and modernize the systems, to make them more efficient, and to meet current-day demands for multiple uses.”

Those challenges have been met. But for the province, more remain.

Water for Life calls for water management plans in all Alberta watersheds, a safe and secure water supply, and healthy aquatic systems into the future. It also prescribes dramatically improved conservation — through a 30 per cent reduction in Alberta’s water consumption.

Many more water use stories, it seems, remain to be written, and further projects will draw on the expertise of Alberta’s engineering community.

Home | Past PEGGs | PEGG Search | Contact Us