Land Use 2016: Alberta’s Agriculture Industries in a Changing Context

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Over the past few years, it became a routine: Statistics Canada would announce that Alberta was Canada’s fastest-growing province, and that Calgary and Edmonton were among the country’s fastest-growing cities. Economic prosperity drew thousands of people from across the country, and even if changing conditions slow future growth, the footprint of this population expansion will leave a lasting impression on the landscape.

When municipalities expand to meet the needs of their burgeoning populations, the lands surrounding their boundaries often experience new development. Since cities and towns are usually built in the midst of an area’s finest farmland, does the creation of new neighborhoods cost the province some of its most productive agricultural land? What happens to land values and the fragmentation of farms when communities grow?

Expanding communities don’t just apply pressure to land use; they also require more water. In much of Alberta, water flows from the Rockies through basins that have supported human communities for thousands of years. Over the last century this water has also come to support thirteen irrigation districts, meaning irrigated agriculture is currently Alberta’s biggest single water user.

Most of southern Alberta’s water basins have now been fully allocated –– new water licenses are no longer being issued, though the water already licensed is not fully utilized. Lack of available water can curb the growth of communities throughout these areas, but irrigated agriculture contributes strongly to Alberta’s economy –– only 4% of the province’s agricultural land is irrigated, but it represents nearly 20% of the agricultural production. How can water needs be balanced? With improvements in efficiency, is there enough to go around?

Policy and planning will be important as Alberta’s governments engage with these issues in the years ahead. Questions surrounding the conservation of agricultural land, the management of water supplies, and the province’s overarching municipal and environmental policy frameworks will need to be answered, and research has a part to play in informing decisions.

Alberta is not alone in facing these issues. Across the United States, municipalities and agricultural industries have collided in numerous ways, and governments have adopted a variety of planning and policy solutions to attempt to shape their landscapes.

Professor Andrew Plantinga from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara is an expert in this area. Delivering the plenary address for Land Use 2016’s policy stream Alberta’s Agriculture Industries in a Changing Context, he will share practical insights into how American jurisdictions are addressing these concerns.

An expert panel including researchers Dr. Evan Davies and Dr. Brent Swallow, and Alberta Irrigation Projects Association Executive Director Ron McMullin will then discuss these issues in the Alberta context.

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