Agricultural water use in Canada

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François Soulard, Martin S. Beaulieu and Caroline Fric

Water is an essential input for crop and livestock production. While farming activities in some areas of the country rely solely on the water provided naturally by precipitation, other areas are heavily dependent on irrigation. This may be due to climatic factors and crop requirements, or to the desire to increase crop yields. Also, farmers from all over the country need to provide drinking water for their livestock. The latest national estimate, dating back to 1996, indicated that the agricultural sector accounted for 9% of all water used in Canada.1

Irrigation is used at specific times in the growing season to supplement precipitation or to supply water in a closed environment like a greenhouse. Water is sprayed on some crops for frost protection. It can also be used for harvesting, for example, by flooding a cranberry field. Other crop production water uses include spraying liquid pesticides and other products to protect crops, cleaning equipment and facilities, washing produce and on–farm processing (for example, canning produce).

Water is also used in livestock production for livestock watering, cleaning facilities, and washing and sanitizing equipment such as milk pipelines, parlours, buckets and tanks.

In 2001, Canadian agricultural water use was estimated at 4.8 billion cubic metres.2 The geographic distribution of water use varied greatly from one region to another and was concentrated in relatively few of the 477 sub-sub drainage areas that contained farms.

Drainage areas with the largest amounts of water used for agriculture were located in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where irrigation was intensively practiced (Map 1 and Map 2). However, from a provincial perspective, more water was used for agriculture in British Columbia than in Saskatchewan.

Together the three westernmost provinces accounted for 92% of total national agricultural water use. Most of the agricultural water in these provinces was used for irrigating crops (96%) and the remainder was mainly used for watering livestock (3%).

Irrigation was less common in other areas of the country. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, water used for watering livestock accounted for more than 42% of total farm water use. It accounted for about one-third of total farm water use in the remaining four provinces.

Nationally, irrigation represented 92% of agricultural water use in 2001, while livestock watering accounted for 5% (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Agricultural water use, 2001. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 1
Agricultural water use, 2001

These estimates were produced through the use of various models and data sources, combined to provide as much uniformity and conformity as possible. However, recognizing these limitations, Statistics Canada and its partners have developed the 2007 Agricultural Water Use Survey. The survey will provide new information on irrigation practices and technologies, quantities of water applied, yields of irrigated crops, water sources, barriers to water use, water quality and water management practices across the country. Statistics Canada interviewers contacted about 2,000 farms across Canada in February 2008. Preliminary results are expected to be available this summer.

Map 1 Agricultural water use by sub-sub drainage area – Western Canada, 2001. Opens a new browser window.

Map 1
Agricultural water use by sub-sub drainage area – Western Canada, 2001

Map 2 Agricultural water use by sub-sub drainage area – Eastern Canada, 2001. Opens a new browser window.

Map 2
Agricultural water use by sub-sub drainage area – Eastern Canada, 2001


  1. Statistics Canada, 2003, Human Activity and the Environment : Annual Statistics, Catalogue no.16-201-X, Ottawa.
  2. Martin S. Beaulieu, Caroline Fric and François Soulard, 2007, "Estimation of Water Use in Canadian Agriculture in 2001," Agriculture and Rural Working Paper Series, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 21-601-M, Ottawa.