With close to 80% of Canada’s irrigated agriculture operations taking place in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, researchers are taking increased note of paradoxical developments in high-tech irrigation, as well as developing alternative models for water allocation.
Two researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) are sharing their latest work on the water economy in a bid to ensure resilience for the region.
USask PhD candidate Leila Eamen and her research team have developed a hydro-economic model that seeks out new ways to allocate water resources from the Saskatchewan River Basin among the Prairie provinces, all in the hopes of maximizing economic benefits like gross domestic product, and navigating trade-offs between economic, environmental and cultural considerations.
For instance, Eamen’s model helps to determine what could happen to the agriculture industry in Saskatchewan should Alberta provide its farms with more water from the Saskatchewan River. The model will also consider important influences in the environment that will most likely cause water shortages in the future, such as climate change and local population growth.
Eamen, who defended her PhD thesis in July 2021, said that being born and raised in the semi-arid region of Iran, “made me understand the real meaning of limited water resources from the early stages of my life.” Now, she’s translating her experience to Saskatchewan, where precipitation has been low and heat levels high in the summer of 2021.
Also from USask is doctoral candidate Mohammad Ghoreishi, who says that as farmers adopt high-tech irrigation systems to manage water use for economic, conservation and environmental reasons, many farmers can switch to higher value crops and expand irrigation acreage to increase profits, which can increase agricultural water demand. Typically, high-tech irrigation is thought to be linked to water conservation.
Ghoreishi, at the School of Environment and Sustainability, and a researcher at USask’s Global Institute for Water Security, says that his latest research is based on a study of what’s happening in the Bow River Basin, where the Alberta government is managing the water resource and balancing the needs of groups, from individuals to municipalities to commercial enterprises, through licensed water allocations.
In the Bow River Basin, he found that many farmers who adopted modern irrigation systems and benefited from higher yields, reduced labour costs, and more precise application of fertilizer and chemicals, are using their surplus water allocations to expand operations and move to higher value crops.
Along with restricting unplanned irrigation expansion, Ghoreishi recommends that governments should tap into the social capital that accrues through farmer interactions, in order to mitigate agricultural rebounding.
“Effective collective actions could be enhanced by community participation and raising awareness through formal channels to inform an individual farmer of the average water use in their community,” the researchers state.
“Collective actions can control the rebound phenomenon by enabling farmers to compare their water use with that of their neighbours, which may be an effective strategy in reducing water use,” the paper adds.