Southern Alberta farming sees water go up and down



Despite the trials and tribulations faced by farmers in southern Alberta, the Brewin family has managed to continue operating their farm near Grassy Lake, Alberta for three generations that span over 100 years.

Brian Brewin, a third-generation farmer, says that he is trying to be more efficient with the water his farm uses. “We have to treat the water supply with respect. Whatever it takes, the supply has to be maintained for future generations.”
Photo courtesy of Brew n Photography

“It’s a family farm,” third-generation farmer Brian Brewin said.

Brian’s grandfather moved to Alberta from England in 1907 and homesteaded just a mile away from where the farm is now. “We just celebrated our centennial five years ago,” Brian said.

The Brewins’ farm is near the main St. Mary’s River Irrigation District’s canal and reservoir, two water sources for the farm.

“I find that there is more and more demand put on our water sources,” Brian said. “I remember one year when we had to use sprinklers because there wasn’t enough moisture. A few years ago, we were rationed for water.

“But this year, we’re struggling because there’s too much moisture. Because of land run-off, we’ve got lakes and dams that are at their peaks, just about going over. The lowlands are all flooded out.

“The climate is almost extreme sometimes. It’s always a bit of a struggle.”

Brian, who is also the reeve of the Municipal District of Taber, said that there’s also a struggle between farming and recreation when it comes to water. “A lot of irrigation reservoirs are also used for fishing and boating, which is great. Taxpayers pay for it.

“But in times of low water supply and (when) the lakes are down, it becomes a bit of a conflict between recreational users and agriculture.”

Kent Bullock, the district manager of the Taber Irrigation District, agreed that there can be conflicting ideas when it comes to water usage.

“People see these reservoirs and think, ‘Oh, that’d be a nice place to put a boat or a dock, or go swimming or waterskiing.’ And then they say, ‘How come the water is so low in my reservoir?’

“They would like the water level to stay the same the whole time, but it’s a storage reservoir, so we take the water out when we need the water.”

Bullock oversees the distribution of water to irrigation farmers, as well as the maintenance of the irrigation system.

“The area could definitely use more storage,” he said. “If we had more storage in wet years, when all the water is running off from the rivers and flooding, we could store some of that water to use in the dry years.

“I know the government is talking about more storage. They’ve looked at different locations. We already send about three-quarters of our water to Saskatchewan, when we only need to send half, so more reservoirs means we could store more of that water and be able to use it for future growth in the province.”

Brian said that he thinks there should be more co-operation when it comes to the allocation of water. “There should be more talk, exactly to where and whom the water goes, where the controls are.

“When there is lots of water, it seems like nobody wants it, and in times of drought, it seems like everybody owns it.”

Brian’s father, Frank, said that water has expanded what farmers in southern Alberta are able to do. “Water has opened up a lot of areas — different crops that we couldn’t produce without water, better yields, and better grades of grain.”

Frank, who’s been farming since he got out of school in 1952, said he finds that the sources of water for his family’s farm are usually enough. “There was a year or two when we were on ration but it’s usually very good. We have so much storage now that they’re able to maintain the water. When we need it, it’s available.

“I think our irrigation district is doing an excellent job of making sure we have water when we need it.”

Brian said that there are always environmental concerns with water. “We’re trying to be more efficient with the water we use. We’re trying to use less energy and lower-pressure pivots. The sprinklers used to be high-pressure. I don’t know how much of it even hit the ground on a hot day.

“We have to treat the water supply with respect,” he said. “Whatever it takes, the supply has to be maintained for the future generation.”