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Frozen water on the Oldman Reservoir, which according to local news media is at its lowest point in 30 years, near Pincher Creek, Alta., on March 15.Todd Korol/Reuters

To produce potatoes in Southern Alberta, farmers need around 400 to 500 millimetres of water to hit their fields during the growing season.

Roughly 87 per cent of Alberta’s potato crops are irrigated primarily in the south to supplement rainfall. But this year, farmers in the St. Mary River Irrigation District, where McCain Foods a year ago said it would spend $600-million to double its potato processing facility, are facing a significant water shortage.

The district, which stretches from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat, said last month that it expects its preliminary 2024 water allocation will equate to 203.2 mm, or 8 inches. By way of comparison, SMRID last April earmarked 381 mm for irrigated land in the 2023 season. The district cut the allocation to 355.6 mm a month later.

Despite the gap between the water necessary to grow thirsty plants such as potatoes and sugar beets, and the predicted water allocation, farmers in Alberta’s irrigated areas are unlikely to give up on these crops. Instead, they will cut back on irrigating other fields, such as those sown with wheat or other cereals, in favour of directing that moisture to land containing more lucrative products.

Cereals can survive with less water, albeit at the expense of yield. Potatoes are more likely to suffer a devastating failure without enough water.

“Those high-value crops – there’s no question – will get the water they need,” said Richard Phillips, the vice-chair of the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association.

The thin snowpack in much of British Columbia and Alberta, coupled with repeated droughts in some swaths of the West, is forcing agricultural producers to carefully manage their operations this year.

Mr. Phillips noted that conditions vary greatly across the West. Reservoirs in the Bow River Irrigation District, for example, are around normal levels for this time of year and the mountain snowpack that feeds the area is below average, but not flirting with disaster. The area is also under a heavy layer of wet snow, giving farmers in the BRID reason to be optimistic, he said.

Susan Heather is a farmer and agrologist south of Calgary. Some agricultural producers around Vulcan and Nanton, she noted, have been grappling with drought for about eight years.

She encourages farmers to test their soil for nutrients to help them better manage expenses as they navigate tough conditions. Some fields, for example, will require less fertilizer this year because there was not enough moisture last year to break down what farmers applied last season. In some cases, that leftover fertilizer can benefit this year’s plants.

She also helps farmers set realistic yield goals in light of the drought, which again means less fertilizer. The recent layer of snow appears to be melting into the soil, rather than running off, which puts farmers in her area in a better position than last year. But still, she thinks yield targets should be halved compared with what farmers would expect in an ideal year.

“Our limiting factor is moisture,” she said. For irrigated crops, for example, there is no point in fertilizing with the expectation of a bumper crop when the annual water allocation is expected to fall well short of what would be necessary to produce a rich harvest.

Ms. Heather advises farmers to include crops that are more drought-tolerant or have alternative uses. Lots of farmers are opting to seed crops that can serve as cattle feed on their irrigated fields, so if it doesn’t rain enough to harvest, they can put their animals on the land to eat the struggling crops or cut it for feed, she said.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was asked this week about drought preparations and water-sharing negotiations. She said Minister of Environment Rebecca Schulz has presented a series of emergency-situation options that would guide when the minister would step in to “mitigate differences” between water licence holders such as irrigation districts, municipalities and energy companies.

The government did not provide further detail, but Ms. Smith said it recognizes the “expectation on the part of the public that human health, the animal welfare, as well as ensuring critical habitat for the species that use those waterways, have got to take priority.”

Alberta’s 11 irrigation districts are the province’s largest water licence holders. Licence holders with the longest standing permits have first dibs on water, although in an emergency, the province’s preference is to have senior licence holders share with others, Ms. Smith said. Alberta, at the end of January, launched negotiations for water-sharing agreements with licence holders in key basins, setting a deadline of March 31.

Asked about the status of those negotiations, Ms. Smith said: “Everyone is hopeful that we are not going to need to go to emergency measures.”

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