By Trevor Busch
Viruses may come and go, but the business of irrigation will go on as producers are preparing their operations for the busy 2020 growing season.
Due to the restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the Raymond Irrigation District (RID) was forced to indefinitely postpone a March 19 public meeting as well as a March 26 plebiscite vote of water users which would have decided a proposed expansion for the district. The RID’s annual general meeting has also been postponed.
RID district manager Gordon ZoBell explained the district has extra water, and wanted to determine if there was an impetus to expand among producers and water users.
“We have five licenses we receive from three rivers, the Waterton, the Belly, and the St. Mary, and those licenses, some go back as late at 1899, and as early as 1991, and collectively they’re 81,000 acre feet, which is to deliver water to 46,500 acres which is our current cap. That allows the water user just over 17 inches at the farm gate. So we’re using far less than that on a yearly basis — we’re usually under 50,000 acre feet in our total diversion. That right there tells you that we have extra water, and so we have decided that we would like to put before the water users the figure of 5,500 acres of expansion, which would take us to 52,000 total on our assessment roll.”
ZoBell pointed out a previous plebiscite vote on expansion had been defeated in 2005, but grassroots pressure from the RID’s membership has been mounting.
“In 1991 is when we received additional on our license, and we have not added additional acres for several years now. We hit our 46,500 cap somewhere in the early 2000s, and we had a plebiscite vote in 2005 that we presented to the membership, and it was turned down. We’ve had much pressure from water users to have the opportunity to add more water, and we’re just not using the water that we are allocated, so it was determined by our board of directors that it makes good sense to try this again, and see if the membership is prepared to pass it this time.”
As for the current status of the district in the lead up to the 2020 growing season, ZoBell is confident the RID will be able to adequately meet the needs of water users.
“Snowpack is above average for our southern tributaries, which is the Waterton, Belly and St. Mary. It’s quite a bit above upper quartile, and it just seems to continue to build. We have good soil reserves from last fall with that early snow and later rain, that moisture is frozen into the ground, so we have a pretty decent reservoir of soil moisture. As far as our allocations, we do not at this juncture see there being any water shortages. And the system, with normal precipitation, we don’t see any problems for this coming year. Our reservoirs are at normal levels for this time of year, and we’re looking in good shape.”
Infrastructure work is ongoing throughout the off-season, and the RID has been completing pipeline work north of the community in early 2020.
“As soon as the water is off and we have drained the system — we have many pipelines in the system — then we go immediately to work, because we can’t work in the summer time because farmers are on their land, and we work all winter long. We start as soon as the water is turned off, and have been installing pipelines all winter north of Raymond. We’ve spent probably $800,000 this winter on a portion of a pipeline to be completed in the next fall, winter and spring of 2020-2021. We’ve been working diligently all winter as we always do in the off season. We rip the frost and we move forward, working in uncomfortable circumstances sometimes, but we’ve got a very good group of individuals that work with us, and we do all our own in-house construction with assistance from the province in funding.”
Serious provincial funding cuts started several years ago have hamstrung Alberta’s irrigation districts, and ZoBell is hopeful this funding will be restored in future.
“Unfortunately that funding has been cut in half, and so we’re slowly processing that, and we’re lucky to have some reserves that we’re using, and looking ahead we’re hoping that eventually the government will get back in line and we’ll be able to receive some more funding. This is for rehabilitation only, not for operations and maintenance. The government gives us 75 per cent under a grant. The districts in total, we used to receive $19 million for quite a few years, that’s been cut back to $10 million for a 13 districts, or about 1.4 million acres in the province. Our share of that is right around $300,000.”
While dollars are tighter in the RID, ZoBell highlighted the district’s participation in the Irrican Power hydro-electric projects has begun to pay dividends for the district.
“The NDP started this downward trend, and the UCP has had to stay with it. We’re lucky we’re still getting some funding, and we’re lucky that we still have some reserves. We also have a co-operative that we are partners in with SMRID (St. Mary River Irrigation District), TID (Taber Irrigation District), and RID, where we have power plants, and 2019 is the first year that we’re seeing some benefit come back to the district because the first two plants have been paid off to outside lending sources.”
After more than four decades serving the RID, ZoBell will be retiring in 2020 with the position to be taken over by Jason Miller.
“I’d just like to thank the forward-thinking leaders of yesterday, and the farmers and water users, who put us on some pretty good footing here. I’m going to be retiring here in a few months, and we just had a couple other guys retire, so there’s going to be some changes here. I’ve been here 43 years. It’s gratifying to see things moving forward with good men in place to take over and continue the tradition of the Raymond Irrigation District operating the system that it is.”
The district will be fully primed for 2020, reports ZoBell.
“As far as spring is concerned, we just have to fill our pipelines, get the system all primed and ready, finish up the rehab we’ve been doing in the winter. It’s looking to be a fairly normal spring for us. Again, it looks like farmers have got some decent soil moisture, as long as we can get some timely rains for germination, getting the crop out of the ground, that’s half the battle. We’ve got good water, we’ve got good water systems, we’ve got good users — we live in very fortunate and blessed area that we are privileged to have the opportunity to live in.”
Due to COVID-19, the RID’s office has been closed to the public but is still open for business during regular hours (8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) via telephone, text or email for questions, concerns or requests.