South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB): Irrigation into the 21st Century - Economic Benefits and Opportunities

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 About the study report | Key findings | Introduction

The full text of the report is available as a pdf file

About the Study Report

As a component of the Irrigation Water Management Study, detailed in the report volumes entitled "South Saskatchewan River Basin - Irrigation in the 21st Century", an assessment of the economic contribution of irrigation in Alberta was carried out. More specifically, the analysis focused on economic contributions that could accrue to the provincial economy through continued irrigation growth that resulted from irrigated area expansion and on-going diversification.

From that detailed study component, a more concise summary document was produced at the request of the Agriculture Sub-Committee of the Alberta Economic Development Authority. This document, published in late 2001, serves to capture and present the hi-lights of the determinations and key findings from the more extensive original study report.

Key Findings

Currently, irrigation development occupies 5.4 percent of the cultivated land in Alberta. Considering the increases in primary production due to irrigation and its spinoff agri-food processing, irrigation contributes about $832 million or 18.4 percent to Alberta’s agri-food GDP. In addition, irrigation infrastructure provides significant non-irrigation benefits related to municipal and industrial water supplies, recreation and tourism, and wildlife. Use of irrigation and its infrastructure in southern Alberta weave an economic, social and environmental fabric that supports human life.

With regard to the future, in early 2000 the Alberta government organized AgSummit 2000 as a government/industry consultative process to examine issues, challenges and opportunities in the agri-food industry, and to set in place procedures to ensure industry is well-positioned to face the challenges and global realities of the future. More than 1,500 Albertans took part in the process.

A recent report by AgSummit (2000) identified 10 priority areas for the agri-food industry, namely (in no particular order):

  • diversification and value-adding
  • environmental stewardship
  • future of farm business
  • sustainable rural communities
  • research innovation and technology
  • new business strategies
  • food quality and safety
  • global market development
  • building an entrepreneurial culture
  • public image of agriculture and food industry
A framework for addressing each area has been put in place, and work on meeting these challenges is underway. Irrigation intensification and expansion will contribute positively to meeting most of the 10 challenges. Five areas in particular are noteworthy.

Growth in agri-processing
The agricultural development strategy in Alberta depends on strong growth in the agri-processing sector. Dr. Marvin S. Anderson has indicated that to be successful in meeting growth targets, a disproportionate amount of growth must take place in irrigation-dependent southern Alberta. This region now has a high ratio of value-added processing to primary production (2.66 compared with 1.05 for other regions of Alberta). There are several reasons for this high ratio, including the following two key ones:

Many of the crops that are in demand as processed products must be grown under irrigation in southern Alberta where the longer growing season, high heat units and relatively secure moisture result in stable, high-quality production. In addition, the backward linkages to agricultural suppliers and related industries are well established, and the prerequisite infrastructure is in place.

There is already a vibrant and growing agri-industrial complex in southern Alberta, which has reached a critical mass capable of substantially more growth, assuming that high-quality primary production is available at internationally competitive prices. The complex is large enough to generate synergies such that one agro-economic activity stimulates the development of yet another.

Irrigation related agri-processing currently adds about $536 million to the agri-food GDP. By 2010, intensification alone will increase that contribution to $711 million (an increase of about 32 percent), and 20 percent expansion would increase it to $853 million (a total increase of about 60 percent).

Improvement in quality of life
Irrigation can continue to improve the environment and quality of life in Alberta. Measures are in place or are being developed to protect aquatic ecosystems of the streams that feed irrigation. Given these safeguards, irrigation can have a significant net positive impact on the environment and quality of life in Alberta. Irrigation also sustains the agricultural resource base by increasing land productivity by 250 to 300 percent, and reducing wind and water erosion.

Reduction of farm risks
Irrigation development reduces farm risks and the need for government and private safety nets, fosters on-farm diversity, and increases profit margins. The trend toward consolidation of farming enterprises, increased input costs, reduced profit margins and increased risks poses a threat to the family farm business and the sustainability of rural communities. Irrigation development improves the long-term sustainability of smaller farm units.

Support of agri-business
The requirement for irrigation supplies and services supports rural agri-business enterprises. Higher labour requirements for primary production on irrigated land, for the agricultural service sector and for irrigation induced post-primary processing would increase rural populations and contribute to more vibrant communities and infrastructure development.

Influx of new ideas and resources
The capacity for industry-led research, which will increase industry success, has greatly increased, and will continue to grow. Research, innovation and technology are critical to long-term success in value-added processing. The addition of several multi-national agri-processors in the irrigated area of Alberta (e.g., McCain, Lamb Weston, Cargill) has brought new ideas, new resources, and greater potential for synergies where agriculture invests in agriculture.


The irrigation districts in southern Alberta, with their extensive networks of canals, pipelines, drains and reservoirs, have a profound impact on the entire region – an impact that extends well beyond the farm gate. Secure supplies of good-quality water have always been a concern to farmers and ranchers in southern Alberta. Urban communities face similar concerns. Local surface water supplies are usually unreliable; groundwater supplies, where adequate quantity can be found, are often of poor quality.

Although the initial development of water diversions and irrigation infrastructure was predicated upon increasing and stabilizing crop production, the irrigation distribution works soon became a supplemental source, and often the sole source, of good-quality water for domestic, stock watering, municipal and industrial uses in southern Alberta. Dependencies on the irrigation infrastructure for non-irrigation uses of water became entrenched.

Without irrigation reservoirs or supplements to natural water bodies by irrigation diversions, there would be very few permanent water bodies in southern Alberta. Municipalities and the province have developed parks and recreation areas on these water bodies to provide water-based recreational opportunities, which otherwise would not have been possible. These recreation areas have become very popular over the years.

Irrigation diversions also are used to create habitat for wildlife. Prior to the 1970s, these projects were often in association with uncontrolled seepage from irrigation canals. However, as irrigation districts have improved irrigation efficiency over the years through rehabilitating canals or replacing them with pipelines, seepage has essentially been eliminated. Most of the wildlife habitat projects are now supported by controlled releases from the irrigation distribution system. New wildlife projects have been developed as districts make conscious efforts to address quality of life and environmental sustainability issues.

Irrigation is now an integral component of the economic, environmental and social fabric of southern Alberta. There are many direct and indirect benefits of the irrigation infrastructure, and promising prospects for the future with intensification of irrigation, increases in agri-food processing, and expansion of the irrigated area.
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Jennifer Nitschelm.
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This information published to the web on June 20, 2002.
Last Reviewed/Revised on January 9, 2013.