The tricky relationship between farming and water

It's a staggering statistic: more than 70 per cent of southern Alberta's water consumption is used to irrigate farmers' fields.

But even as water issues are coming into the fore, farmers' water choices are still being made independently, as government hasn't stepped in to regulate water use, explains Dr. Kurt Klein, a professor in the U of L's Department of Economics. The agricultural economist and former farmer says this might change when water becomes more scarce. There's also a strong need to understand how to balance farmers' business interests with the protection of the resource before tough choices need to be made.

Klein has done extensive work on bioproduct-based economies and trade partnerships. In 2003, he earned one of the largest Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants in the U of L's history ($650,000). In recent years, he's turned his attention to water issues and says understanding the economy of water is crucial to planning for the future.

Unlike countries such as Australia and the United States, there's been little research done in Canada on how to use economic instruments (like subsidies and taxes) to motivate farmers to use water in more efficient ways, without harming their ability to make a living. Because agricultural enterprises have such a narrow profit margin and are susceptible to both environmental and market changes, it's crucial to make well-informed policy decisions.

"At the heart of this is the profitability of agriculture," says Klein.

Dr. Klein and his colleagues, Drs. Henning Bjornlund and Ruth Grant Kalischuk, are working to fill this gap in the literature. They're contributing to a study examining some of the sociological factors underlying how water is used on livestock farms in southern Alberta.

Bjornlund, a professor in the U of L's Department of Economics and a Canada Research Chair (Water and the Economy - International), has done extensive work on water management both in Australia and Alberta. Much of his recent work has focused on the Government of Alberta's new Water for Life strategy, which seeks to strike a better balance between environmental and human needs.

He explains that this study of livestock farmers, which began in 2006, explores the environmental and public health issues associated with water use on farms, how farmers decide to allocate water and deal with wastewater issues, and how surrounding communities perceive livestock operations.

Bjornlund and his associates are collecting data via surveys and focus groups with farming families and residents in surrounding communities. So far, data reveals that farming families are quite concerned about the operations' impact on human health.

This doesn't come as a surprise to Grant Kalischuk, who is a nurse researcher within the School of Health Sciences.

"They were aware of the impacts of the huge farming industry in Alberta and realized that there's a huge runoff from manure and urine," she explains, adding that most people surveyed feel that the livestock industry is generally associated with the degradation of the area's water supplies.

Grant Kalischuk says the solutions to health-related water issues require understanding the viewpoints of an entire community.

This research program provides one example of the multidisciplinary research currently taking place at the University of Lethbridge. Drs. Klein, Bjornlund and Grant Kalischuk believe that their collaborative efforts will improve our knowledge base about the tricky relationship between farming and water use.

"Through our multidisciplinary approach, we are endeavouring to create a more comprehensive picture," Grant Kalischuk says.