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Agriculture Sector Water Workshop – November 12, 2009

Meeting Summary

On November 12, 2009, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) in collaboration with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) hosted a Round Table meeting of stakeholder/experts from the agriculture community to discuss issues pertaining to the future of Canada’s water resources and the agriculture sector.

Logo - Canadian Federation of Agriculture

Participants representing a range of interests including irrigation districts, livestock production, federal and provincial governments, academia, and habitat conservation met to identify the key current and emerging freshwater use and availability issues within the sector, and characterize the state of freshwater use information in the agriculture sector to better inform both the sector and water managers. The latter discussion also highlighted future information gaps believed necessary for sustainable water management. The final discussion of the meeting was focused on recommendations to the NRTEE with respect to critical policy issues that the NRTEE might incorporate into its Water Program in 2010.

Water use and Agriculture in Canada

The CFA organized a presentation delivered by five primary producers which provided an overview of the diverse range of issues and approaches to water use within the sector. Common to each, it was noted that the agriculture sector is wholly dependant on a stable supply of clean freshwater. While this supply may be a competitive advantage for Canada’s agricultural exports in the future, it is also critically linked to Canada’s food security. As the fourth largest water user in 2005 (accounting for 9% of total withdrawals based on Statistics Canada modelled estimates), the agriculture sector faces growing public scrutiny for its water use in those regions where it is most visible. Significantly, water use by the sector is on the rise and predicted to increase. As demand for high-value crops increases and quality dependable land decreases, irrigation demands will grow.

Although irrigation is not common to all crop production (it’s largely prevalent in Prairie provinces) the impact of that use is significant in certain local contexts where drought conditions create tension amongst users. In certain watersheds, public concern about reserving water allocations for ecosystems has also created tension about competition for water supplies.

Water Issues in the Agriculture Sector

A number of key issues were raised in relation to water availability, a few of which were: food security; competing demands for water including for in-stream flow needs; climate change; and pending policy changes that include changes to allocation schemes and fiscal instruments.

The sector believes that a better understanding of food security is essential to discussions about water management, particularly when talking about a national water strategy or approach. Historically, society valued settlement and food production. Although societal values may be shifting, a broader discussion of current and future values is needed to shape future water policies.

The sector has a strong and direct connection with water as a critical factor of production, and so in water-stressed parts of Canada there is considerable concern over the potential impacts of climate change on water availability. Creating additional storage capacity is considered an essential component of future management strategies. Climate change impacts are already shifting producers’ expectations on access and timing of precipitation. Improved information and communication tools on these impacts would be a valued component of climate change adaptation measures. An overarching strategy to assist in directing the efficient use of irrigation techniques, as was done in the past based on improved knowledge of available water resources (ground and surface flows) would be a welcome coordinating function.

The sector is concerned about competing demands for water and believes competition will affect how the agriculture sector uses water in the future. In Alberta, maintaining water in the environment for in-stream flow needs is expected to be the largest competing use. Examples of conflicts over water currently exist in other parts of the country, such as in the Okanagan Valley in B.C. (between fruit growers and residential users) and in Ontario (between different agriculture producers).

Some participants voiced concerns about possible policy changes. An example raised was the possible changes in Alberta’s allocation scheme (first in time, first in right (FIT-FIR). The potential use of fiscal instruments such as water pricing was also raised as an issue. While the issue of pricing water to encourage sustainable use across sectors was put forward, the majority of producers present expressed their conviction that such a measure would cripple agricultural operations as they exist in the current marketplace. More broadly, the use of market mechanisms to support producers in providing current and improved societal and ecological services as part of a broader land use management strategy would be preferred.

Despite the economic constraints associated with low food prices and profit margins, programs and targeted funding to improve water efficiency and information (i.e. through metering) would be welcome by producers. The support and uptake of government cost-sharing programs (incentive-based) to retrofit irrigation by reducing evaporative losses is one example of this commitment. However, there were expressed concerns about new reporting requirements and the associated burdens of regulatory reporting (in some provinces).

Water use information and data

The nature and accuracy of water use data collected by primary producers varies considerably, compounded by the fact that reporting requirements for the agriculture sector vary by province. The nature of the agriculture sector necessitates producers to monitor rainfall and water that is stored in reservoirs or withdrawn as a core function of their business. This information is used to determine when and how much water is needed as well as to monitor the associated energy costs for delivering water. Water uses by the sector include livestock watering and care, and crop irrigation, pesticide application, frost protection, tank mixing. Although information on water use in Canada highlights agriculture as the greatest ‘consumer’ of water (because water that is withdrawn is not returned directly to the source), these statistics fail to characterize the function of water that is returned through soils to both streams and groundwater sources. As part of this information gap, little is known in quantifiable terms about the function of certain agricultural land management practices in improving water captured through soil and delivered to groundwater and streams (the alternative being runoff that causes erosion). With the proper incentives, the sector could improve its role in water management through preservation of wetlands and creation of habitat in the form of off-stream storage. In some regions, improved water management is required to buffer contamination of water resources, as was noted for the east coast of Canada.

Direction for Further Inquiry by the NRTEE

Participants suggested that the NRTEE further investigate some gaps to gain a more complete understanding of water use in the agriculture sector including:

  • Water use by dry land farming operations;
  • Net use of water by agriculture, including how much water goes into food; and
  • Water quality and quantity interactions, including groundwater.

It was also noted that the meeting participation was not complete in terms of regional representation and so the information provided at the meeting was not complete.

The agriculture sector sees a role for the NRTEE to further investigate climate change adaptation. Having good scientific information on expected climate conditions and the means to communicate that information at the appropriate scale and in a timely manner could help the sector put measures in place in advance of changes.

From a policy lens, one participant suggested that the NRTEE look at options for simplifying regulatory environments and shaping market mechanisms that allow users necessary flexibility to manage water use themselves. The NRTEE could also look at how water pricing would affect different sectors. The International Joint Commission is currently using adaptive management principles to test different management regimes in watersheds in order to identify associated impacts – the NRTEE could look at using this approach more broadly to test policy regimes in Canada.

Specific to the agriculture sector, participants suggested that the NRTEE explore the connection between food security and irrigation, and the net impact of diverting water from rivers (i.e., benefits and costs).


*This summary is a brief description of the key points of discussion. It is intended to highlight the main ideas and discussion points and is not meant to be representative of the meeting in its entirety.



Jill Baker
Senior Policy Advisor
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Katherine Balpataky
Research Associate
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Henning Bjornlund
Canada Research Chair, Department of Economics
University of Lethbridge

Francois Bregha
Stratos Inc.

Murray Clamen
International Joint Commission – Canadian Section

René Drolet
Director of Policy & Research
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Denise Edwards
Administrative Assistant
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Bryan Gilvesy
YU Ranch

Chris Hilkene
NRTEE Member;
Chair, NRTEE Water Sub-Committee
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Lynn Jacobson
1st Vice President
Wild Rose Agricultural Producers

Sarah Kalff
Environmental Policy Analyst
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Don McCabe
Ontario Federation of Agriculture

David McLaughlin
President and CEO
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

Greg Northey
Director, Environment Policy
Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA)

Bill Parks
Parks Blueberries

Richard Phillips
General Manager
Bow River Irrigation District

David Sauchyn
Research Coordinator, Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative
University of Regina

Martine Savard
Research Scientist (PhD), Hydrogeology and Environmental Geoscience
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan)

Paul Thoroughgood
Regional Agrologist, Western Region
Ducks Unlimited Canada

LeRon Torrie
St. Mary River Irrigations District

Vicky Weekes
Stratos Inc.


Item Time Allotted
1. Introductions and ObjectivesOpening Comments from NRTEE and CFA 9:00 – 9:15
2. NRTEE Presentation on “Water and Canada’s Natural
Resource Sectors” Program
9:15 – 9:30
3. Sector Presentation – Canadian Federation of Agriculture

  • What are the key water uses in the sector?
    • On-farm?
    • Off-farm?
  • What are the key elements of a water use model for the
9:30 – 10:10
4. Academic Presentation – “Water Resources
10:10 – 10:35
5. Water Use Issues in the Agriculture SectorDiscussion:

  • What are the key water use issues facing the sector
    (now/future; and real/perceived)?
  • What opportunities exist to improve the sector’s water usethrough innovation (or other means)?
10:50 – 12:30
6. Sector Water Use Information Identification & Characterizationa) Presentation on Water Use Information for the Agriculture

b) Discussion:

  • What information is collected for the sector?
  • By whom?
    • For what purpose?
  • What information is needed to manage:
    • On-farm water use?
    • Off-farm water use / impacts?
  • What are the key issues around water use information?
1:15 – 2:30
7. Implications for Focusing the NRTEE’s Program Discussion:

  • What are the priorities that the NRTEE should focus on andstudy further with respect to:
    • Key issues?
    • Water use information?(Given what others are doing?)
  • What are some initial ideas on potential solutions to thesepriority issues that the NRTEE could investigate (policy
    options for example)?
  • What are some initial ideas on examples of particularlyeffective governance processes?
2:45 – 3:45
8. Wrap-Up and Closing Remarks 3:45 – 4:00


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