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Agricultural water use in 2007—A profile of irrigation

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Less rainfall, more irrigation
Farms in the western provinces depend on off-farm water sources

Marie-Ève Poirier, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division

Water is necessary for crop production, whether it falls as rain or is applied through irrigation. Irrigation is commonly used to make up for a lack of moisture in the soil during periods of little rain. It can result in higher crop yields or increased profitability of certain crops.

For the most part, Canada is not a particularly arid country and only a small number of farms irrigate their crops. In the last census, only 7% of farms reported using irrigation in 2005 (Table 1). However, irrigation accounts for an important share of overall water use in certain areas of the country. At the provincial level, the highest proportion of farms irrigating their land were located in British Columbia (35%), followed by Alberta (8%). These two provinces also had a larger number of farms that irrigate their land.

Table 1 Number and proportion of farms that irrigated their crops in 2005

What you should know about this study

This study is based on data from the 2006 Census of Agriculture and the 2007 pilot Agriculture Water Use Survey.

Census of Agriculture

The Census of Agriculture is used to collect and publish a wide range of data on the agricultural sector such as the number and type of farms, the characteristics of farmers, the legal form of the business, land management practices, the crop areas, the number of livestock and poultry, farm capital, operating expenditures and revenue, and machinery, equipment, and farm equipment. These data provide a complete picture of the agricultural sector in Canada every five years, on the national, provincial and territorial scales, as well as at smaller geographical levels. Part of the Survey also asked respondents if they used irrigation and what area was irrigated. In 2006, we asked respondents to identify the irrigated area by crop type: fruits, vegetables, field crops, hay and pasture and other types of crops. The target population for the Census of Agriculture is made up of all census farms in Canada. For more information on the concepts, methodology and data quality please see: Data Quality.

Agricultural Water Use Survey, 2007 pilot

The Agricultural Water Use Survey was conducted to gather information on water use, irrigation methods and practices, and the sources and quality of the water used in agriculture by Canadian farms. This survey, part of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) initiative, is the result of collaboration between Statistics Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Environment Canada.

The population targeted by the survey is made up of farms that use irrigation. The survey population consists of farms that have at least $10,000 in gross revenue and reported irrigating or having irrigation equipment in the 2006 Census of Agriculture. Excluded from the survey are farms in the territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut), institutional farms (e.g. government, university and prison farms), farms on Indian reserves, community pastures, pure hatcheries and farms that produce only Christmas trees.

The sample size was set at 2,000 units for the whole of Canada. Participation in the survey was voluntary. Data were obtained directly from respondents.

For more information on the concepts, methodology and data quality please see: Agricultural Water Use Survey.

Less rainfall, more irrigation

Since irrigation is primarily used to offset a lack of moisture in soil, one would expect farms that irrigate located in arid regions to use more water for irrigation than farms in other areas. In Canada, some of the driest regions are in central and south eastern British Columbia, in southern Alberta, and south-western Saskatchewan. These areas received some of the lowest amounts of rainfall in the country during the 2007 growing season (Map 1).

Map 1 Accumulated precipitation, growing season, April 1 to August 31, 2007

British Columbia (33%), Alberta (28%), and Ontario (19%) had the highest proportion of farms that irrigated their crops in 2007 (Chart 1). However, it should be noted that agricultural practices differ from one region to another. Grain and oilseed farms in the Canadian prairies typically have a larger average surface area than the orchards of British Columbia or farms in the east. The number of farms is therefore not the best indicator of water use for irrigation.

Chart 1 Distribution of irrigation, by province, 2007

Although there are more farms irrigating in British Columbia, more than half of all land that is irrigated in Canada is located in Alberta (60%). However, 13% of irrigated areas are still located in British Columbia (Chart 1).

According to the pilot Agricultural Water Use Survey, Alberta was the most intensive irrigation water user, with farms using more water per unit of irrigated land than farms in other provinces. The province was also the lead water user when it came to the volume of water used for irrigation. Alberta accounted for 73% of the total volume of water used for irrigation in 2007 (Chart 1). British Columbia and Saskatchewan combined used an additional 20%. In comparison, farms in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Manitoba used very little water for irrigation. Agriculture occurs in these provinces, but farms tend to receive more rainfall than their counterparts to the west.

In 2007, the pilot Agricultural Water Use Survey estimated the total volume of water used for irrigation in Canada at 1,503 million cubic metres.1

Farms in the western provinces depend on off-farm water sources

In most cases, farms in the western provinces depend on off-farm sources of water for agriculture. More than 70% of prairie farms and 53% of farms in British Columbia used off-farm water sources (Chart 2). The vast majority of farms using off-farm water use provincial sources for their water. For example, most irrigators in Alberta are allocated their water through provincial irrigation districts. Water from off the farm must be transported—tanker, canals and/or aqueduct systems bring water from suitable sources.

Chart 2 Water sources used by farms that irrigated their land, 2007

Water transport can have an impact on the environment. Although efforts are made to improve the efficiency of irrigation canals by reducing water losses, water is lost through evaporation or infiltration. Another source of water delivered to the farm that is by no means insignificant is tap water (Table 2). British Columbia is unique in that it is the only region where more farms use groundwater from wells instead of surface water.

Table 2 Number of farms reporting off-farm sources of water used for agricultural purposes, 2007

In the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario, farms mainly use on-farm water sources for agricultural activities (Chart 2). They use more surface water from lakes, rivers, and ponds located on the farm. The use of surface water has the advantage of being generally less expensive than groundwater, which needs to be pumped to the surface.

  1. The pilot Agricultural Water Use Survey asked farmers directly for the quantity of water used to irrigate crops. This number may be underestimated as discussed in the Survey’s technical report. Please see: Statistics Canada, 2009, “Agricultural Water Use Survey 2007, Methodology Report,” Environment Accounts and Statistics Analytical and Technical Paper Series, Catalogue no. 16-001-M2009008 for more information.