The St. Mary Project
In the late 1880's, William Pearce, surveyor for the Department of the Interior, became a strong proponent of irrigation in the semi-arid regions of western Canada. The federal government feared that Pearce's views would discourage immigration to western Canada and attempted to suppress any further publicity of his opinions. However, it was a drought, not Pearce, which made people reluctant to settle in southern Alberta. There was even an emigration of settlers out of the area. In an attempt to stem the outflow, the communities of Calgary, Fort Macleod, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat began to promote William Pearce's idea of bringing irrigation to southern Alberta.
After many attempts to initiate large-scale irrigation development, construction of the St. Mary Project (SMP) began in 1898. Factors that influenced construction were 1) improved economic conditions, 2) the federal government wishing to protect and establish Canadian interests to adequate water supplies and 3) Elliot Galt's negotiating skills to bring all interested parties together. Water from the St. Mary River was diverted at Kimball through a 10.5 mile long canal to Pinepound Creek. By November 1899, the Canadian North-West Irrigation Company had completed canals and structures through to Stirling; and water flowed from Magrath to Stirling. On September 4, 1900, the first irrigation water arrived in Lethbridge. The Lethbridge News reported:
"There was rejoicing among the citizens and the small boys of Lethbridge
found the flowing water a source of much delight... Mayor Mewburn was
the first person... to plant trees on the lawns about his house and to lay pipes
about his property from the irrigation trench running down the street."
Irrigation canal construction was only one part of the St. Mary Project. Canal operation, maintenance and rehabilitation, water permits, railways to service the new communities were required as well. To assist new water users in adapting to irrigation agriculture, William Fairfield established a model farm to demonstrate proper farming methods. In 1905, the Dominion Experimental Farm (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Lethbridge Research Centre) was created. Fairfield became director in 1906. The Experimental Farm conducted both dryland and irrigated crop research "NO DROUGHT HERE!" and "EVERY MAN HIS OWN RAINMAKER" were promotional ads placed by Lethbridge town council in 1901 to draw people to the area. With irrigation, Lethbridge would become the "Garden of the West"! East of Lethbridge, Coaldale was called "Gem of the West". The Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&ICo.) took over the SMP in 1904. In 1908, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) purchased controlling interest of AR&ICo. and thus became manager of the SMP. In 1912, CPR advertised settlement programs- "Get Your Canadian Home from the Canadian Pacific". The readymade farm program was available in the Coaldale colony east of Lethbridge: "17 readymade farms of 160 acres each with buildings and improvements" would be ready for occupation. By 1918, CPR had water agreements for 102,900 acres. From 1919 to 1946, CPR's efforts were directed to maintaining the existing system. The Depression caused the CPR to reduce its staff and maintenance budget for the SMP. Further expansion of the SMP was driven by local farmers. As a result, the Taber, Raymond and Magrath Irrigation Districts were created. These new districts reduced CPR's responsibility of administrating the project's distribution system. By 1946, there were 220 miles of canals: 162 constructed miles and 58 miles of natural channels (eg. Pothole & Pinepound Creeks, Six Mile Coulee Spillway). Water was carried to 237 headgates which controlled water flow into 300 miles of farmer operated sub-laterals. Due to the lack of off-stream storage, annual water shortages also began. Compounded with increases in water demand, the need for a storage reservoir resurfaced. Since 1900, several groups had recommended reservoir construction as part of the SMP. However, CPR repeatedly rejected any responsibility for reservoir construction. Water shortages were handled by rotating the available water supply between the project's southern and northern irrigation divisions. Severe water shortages in 1936 brought complaints that "were heavy and continuous from June 18th until the end of November. Quarrelling amongst neighbors was rife, causing numerous court cases, and farmers were in a distressed mental condition during most of the crops growing season". In addition to crop demands for water, there were also political concerns that supported the construction of storage reservoirs. As William Fairfield stated in 1936: "[It was] important that storage reservoirs to utilize flood water from the St. Mary River be developed as soon as possible before the Americans establish priority through the beneficial use with the storage development proposed on the American side."
Old CPR Ad Ready-Made area Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta
The St. Mary & Milk River Development Act
In December 1945, CPR transferred control of the SMP to the government of Alberta. Out of this transfer, the St. Mary & Milk Rivers Development (SMRD) was created. The St. Mary & Milk Rivers Development Act was enacted in 1950. This legislation provided for the management of SMRD. Water rates and water right payments could be set and collected. One of the major stumbling blocks of the project, prior to the passing of the act was the objection of farmers to pay water rates to provide capital to help maintain, upgrade or expand the existing irrigation systems. SMRD was now given the legal authority to levy a service charge to cover actual costs. This act was also an important step in the transition of the SMP from a government corporation to a water user run irrigation district.
Old Ditching Machine Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta
Despite commissions and non-government agencies urging the Alberta and Canada governments to build storage reservoirs within the SMP, it wasn't until 1946 that the decision to build the St. Mary Dam was made. Speed became the essence in constructing the dam because of a) the favorable political climate for public (i.e. government) investment in irrigation expansion and development and b) Canada's readiness to fulfill its obligation to the 1921 International Joint Commission's recommendation that "the Governments of the United States and Canada proceed to construct reservoirs to obtain the maximum benefits from the flood waters of" Milk and St. Mary Rivers. The St. Mary Dam was completed in 1951 and was officially opened July 16, 1951. It was the largest earth fill dam in Canada. The dam began partial operation in 1952, delivering 186,000 acre-feet of water to 130,000 acres of land. The dam became and remains to this day the key structure of the St. Mary Project. The storage reservoir created by the dam was 17 miles long, 6 miles wide, 176 feet deep and with a storage capacity of 320,000 acre-feet.
Dredging the canals Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta
Between 1969 and 1973, the provincial government took over management of the headworks and ended 75 years of federal involvement in the SMP. This switch created the 1973 Alberta Irrigation Agreement. Today, the headworks are owned and operated by Alberta Environment, with operational input from the irrigation districts. The headworks encompass the Waterton, St. Mary, Jensen and (Milk River) Ridge reservoirs; the Belly River diversion, the St. Mary Dam and all the interconnecting canal works. The recent upgrading and spillway replacement of the St. Mary Dam ensures safe and reliable operation of the dam and reservoir for decades to come.
St. Mary Main Canal
By 1954, water reached Medicine Hat via 220 miles of the newly constructed Main Canal. The SMP's headworks extended a) west from the St. Mary Dam to the Waterton Reservoir; b) east via Jensen Reservoir to Ridge and Raymond Reservoirs and then c) via the Main Canal through to Medicine Hat. Alberta Environment operates the headworks through to Ridge Reservoir. The remainder of the system comes under the jurisdiction of the SMRID, TID and RID. Currently, the main canal is under SMRID jurisdiction after the Horsefly turnout. From Ridge reservoir to Horsefly, the St. Mary Main Canal Advisory Committee oversee the operation of the main canal.
1968 Irrigation Act: The Creation of the St. Mary River Irrigation District. The provincial government passed legislation to create the Irrigation Act, the "most comprehensive irrigation legislation passed since 1894 North-west Irrigation Act". The St. Mary and Milk Rivers Development (SMRD) went from a crown corporation to the water user run St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID). The Act transferred the SMRD's manager's authority to a board of directors. As well, SMRID assumed overall coordination and operation of the main canal from Ridge Reservoir to Medicine Hat.
Construction of concrete diversion structure Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta
In 1899, the Canadian North-West Irrigation Company was issued a permit to divert water from the St. Mary River. This permit was amended in 1902 to allow diversion from the Belly River. During its management of the SMP, CPR made no effort to change the permit to a water license. In 1975, SMRID applied for a license from Alberta Environment. By 1990, final wording for the license was reached and SMRID was granted water licenses for 722,000 acre feet with the assessment role acreage capped at 372,000 acres (1.94 feet of water per acre). Provision was made for a review in 2000.
Irrigation Rehabilitation Program
Due to age, technology and/or quickness of construction, irrigation infrastructures were in dire need of rehabilitation. In the 1980's, the Heritage Trust Fund funded major irrigation rehabilitation and expansion projects. One of the major projects was reconstruction and rehabilitation of the St. Mary Main Canal. Some of the challenges facing contractors were: a) keeping the system operational while rehab was occurring and b) developing cold weather construction techniques for the large concrete structures. The Irrigation Rehabilitation Program (IRP) is a cost sharing agreement between the provincial government and the irrigation districts. Currently the cost sharing ratio is 75% provincial and 25% supplied by the irrigation districts. IRP funding and project approval is managed by the Irrigation Secretariat.
1999 Irrigation Districts Act
"The purpose of this Act is to provide for the formation, dissolution and governance of irrigation districts in order that the management and delivery of water in the districts occur in an efficient manner that provides for the needs of the users." Of the changes in this new Act, perhaps the most significant one affects water rights. Historically, water rights were tied to the land; i.e., the land could not be sold without the water rights or vice-versa. Now, however, water rights are a commodity and can be sold separately from the land. As well, the Irrigation Districts Act has bestowed upon the irrigation districts the rights of a natural person.
One Hundred Years Later
September 4, 2000 marked a milestone in irrigation history. The St. Mary Project celebrated 100 years of "Bringing Water to Life". To commemorate this anniversary, the 4 member irrigation districts (Magrath, Raymond, St. Mary and Taber) of the SMP hosted a Centennial Celebration, published the history book Quenching the Prairie Thirst, and donated a cairn and fountain to the City of Lethbridge. The inscription on the cairn reads: Construction of the St. Mary River Irrigation Project and the arrival of water through the irrigation system to the Town of Lethbridge, NWT on September 4, 1900 sparked the growth of the city, region and economy of Southern Alberta. This area, once described as a "treeless plain not fitted for the permanent habitation of man" has been transformed into one of the most densely populated and prosperous agricultural regions in Canada. The benefits of irrigation extend beyond the direct impact of stabilizing, diversifying and increasing agricultural productivity. Domestic, municipal, industrial and recreational water users and wildlife conservation efforts rely on the irrigation infrastructure for their water supplies. To commemorate 100 years of irrigation in Southern Alberta the St. Mary, Taber, Raymond and Magrath Irrigation Districts bestow to the citizens of Lethbridge this fountain in Henderson Lake as a symbol that irrigation is the "fountain of life" for Lethbridge and Southern Alberta. Engineering services for the fountain donated by UMA Engineering Ltd.
St. Mary River Irrigation Project
Construction of the St. Mary River Irrigation Project and the arrival of water through the irrigation system to the Town of Lethbridge, NWT on September 4, 1900 sparked the growth of the city, region and economy of Southern Alberta. This area, once described as a "treeless plain not fitted for the permanent habitation of man" has been transformed into one of the most densely populated and prosperous agricultural regions in Canada. The benefits of irrigation extend beyond the direct impact of stabilizing, diversifying and increasing agricultural productivity. Domestic, municipal, industrial and recreational water users and wildlife conservation efforts rely on the irrigation infrastructure for their water supplies. To commemorate 100 years of irrigation in Southern Alberta, the St. Mary, Taber, Raymond and Magrath Irrigation Districts bestow to the citizens of Lethbridge this fountain in Henderson Lake as a symbol that irrigation is the "Fountain of Life" for Lethbridge and Southern Alberta.
Gilpin, John. Quenching the Prairie Thirst. 286 pp. St. Mary River Irrigation Project, Box 278, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. T1J 3Y7
Province of Alberta. Irrigation Districts Act, Chapter 1-11.7, 1999. 115pp. Queen's Printer, 11510 Kingsway, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. T5G 2Y5