New water project welcome news for farmers

It’s no secret that water-related events can have a devastating impact on agriculture. Whether it’s a catastrophic flood, wet fields at seeding time or extended drought, farmers are often faced with either too much water or not nearly enough.

What’s more, science lacks a solid understanding of why these events occur. For Camrose-area farmer Humphrey Banack, it’s hard to pick an issue of more direct importance to farmers.

“With recent disastrous water events in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, we all know how devastating flooding can be,” says Banack. “Although the attention sometimes centers on the impacts to urban properties, water-related events can be a major risk for primary agriculture, too.”

As a farmer managing 5,000 acres, Banack has had his share of battles with insufficient or excess moisture. He recalls the wet spring of April 2011 in the Camrose area as one of the worst.

Now, as 2nd Vice President with the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), Banack is involved in a new, large-scale effort to remove some of the mystery surrounding water events in rural Alberta.

On March 17, 2015, Member of Parliament for Wetaskiwin Blaine Calkins, on behalf of Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, announced $1.3 million in federal support for AFA to develop a unique computer model that will better identify the risk and impacts of overland flooding and drought in agricultural areas. Federal funding is being provided through the AgriRisk Initiatives program.

The project’s focus will be to construct and showcase a suite of complex hydrologic models to assess interactive water movement throughout the South Saskatchewan River Basin. Under each water‐related risk assessment, the model will build maps that define risk zones within the study area. The model will then quantify the frequency, geographical extent and severity of water-related events.

To execute the project, AFA will team up with private consultants experienced in agriculture risk and with world-renowned hydrologic and climate change scientists to generate the computer simulation model. The three-year project will begin April 1, 2015 and continue through March 31, 2018.

Banack notes that this project fits perfectly with AFA’s mandate. As Alberta’s largest producer-funded general farm organization, AFA supports a sustainable agriculture industry with viable farm incomes. The data collected under this project could contribute to better flood risk analysis and eventually lead to the development of overland flooding insurance products. Spearheading effective farm risk management tools for farmers is a key priority area for AFA.

“Many people don’t know that Canada is the only G8 country where overland flooding is not an insurable risk,” Banack says. “The federal funding provided to AFA will allow us to begin immediately in addressing the important area of water and risk assessment in agriculture, potentially paving the way for practical insurance solutions for producers.”

Healthy water starts with healthy rural wells

How’s your well working? Ask rural Albertans this question, and their answers will range from excellent … to not so good.

Over his 36 years as an Agricultural Water Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Ken Williamson worked on the front lines of rural water quality. Now that he’s retired, Williamson is on a mission to spread the word about sound practices for effective water well management.

Rural water management and water quality are important issues in the eyes of Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA). That’s why we invited Williamson to speak at our Annual General Meeting in Red Deer in January. In a conference with an overall water theme, Williamson’s presentation was clearly one of the most popular.

Over 450,000 Albertans rely on privately-owned well water for their households. Provincial water specialists like Williamson are part of a province-wide Working Well Program that hosts workshops to show farmers and rural well owners how to properly care for their wells.

“We really want to help people to do a good job of keeping records on their wells, testing their water regularly, and if they have problems, using the standard maintenance techniques to solve those problems,” Williamson says.

The workshops are offered for free through the joint efforts of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health and Alberta Water Well Drilling Association. Since 2008, the program has delivered over 187 workshops and has reached 5,000 Albertans.

Workshop topics include the basics of groundwater, proper well construction, contamination risks, the importance of well reclamation and best management practices.

Williamson says that the workshops also identify several common well problems in Alberta. In his eyes, two of the most common and significant problems are:

  • unused wells that are abandoned, that then attract small animals, or corrode and leak over time, and
  • well pits and basement wells that are not properly capped or are susceptible to sewage back up or flooding.

“There are thousands of abandoned wells around the province,” says Williamson. “People are reluctant to spend the money to get rid of them or properly plug them, but they can cause real problems. For example, the steel casing of the unused well can corrode and flow undesirable water back into the aquifer that supplies the new well.”

Williamson recommends that farmers remove or plug abandoned wells, and cap or decommission well pits. While well plugging can be done without a professional, he recommends talking with a licensed water well contractor or water specialist to determine the scope of the well issues.

Williamson also points out that funding help is available to farmers for well projects through the Growing Forward 2 On-Farm Water Management Program.

The 2015 Working Well Workshops are currently running through to the end of March in many locations in the province – click on the link to see the workshop schedule and find additional well resources.

AFA’s AGM highlights water management in agriculture

Farming depends on many different resources, but without a sustainable supply of water, growing crops and livestock would be impossible.

Over two days, January 20 and 21, 2015, attendees at the Annual General Meeting of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), heard about water management and its impact on agriculture. A series of outstanding speakers explored many angles of water and agriculture from: legal issues, public policy, water well management and emerging technologies.

“If we don’t get water management right, farming in Alberta can’t be as successful in the future as we have been in the past,” says AFA president Lynn Jacobson, who farms near Enchant. “We’ll continue to advocate for sound policy for water management and agriculture.”

Since 1959, Alberta Federation of Agriculture has been Alberta’s producer-funded general farm organization. Whenever decisions are being made that affect the province’s agricultural industry, AFA provides an effective voice for Alberta’s farmers.

Each year, AFA members attend the January AGM to propose, debate, vote on and form resolutions on issues that affect Alberta farm producers. Resolutions direct key priorities for the organization for the year ahead.

For 2015, AFA will continue its work on improving grain transportation, encouraging governments to invest in research and innovation, farm safety, and conservation, among other priorities.

Camrose’s Humphrey Banack, who serves as AFA’s 2nd vice president, says that it’s never been more important for producers to drive policy decisions.

“During the AGM, we gather with producers to debate and discuss top issues in agriculture, then use those policy directions to draw the future of agriculture forward,” says Banack.

Banack points to one instance where producers changed how their industry operates. At the January 2014 AFA AGM, farmers raised the problem of poor grain movement. Along with AFA, the farm organizations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan brought the issue to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which in turn raised it with the Federal Ministers of Agriculture and Transportation. By March 2014, these actions resulted in a mandated minimum level of service by the railways.

“Policy is as important as production,” says Banack. “Members of AFA have a direct channel to let their voice be heard. We ask any agricultural producer – whether in crop production, livestock management or value-added food production – to join us as we work for a stronger industry for all.”