‘Conversations’ don’t necessarily include listening

The new political buzzword with the provincial government is “conversation.”

The new political buzzword with the provincial government is “conversation.”

It’s a word hatched by Premier Alison Redford, who seems to mention it at every opportunity.

In the past, we had round-table discussions, town-hall meetings, public consultations, commissions of enquiry, fact-finding tours — we even had kitchen- table talks — but now it’s “conversations” with our government.

Of course, the new name for the same thing doesn’t mean the government will be actually be “listening.”

Civil servants, ever mindful of the political predilections of their ruling masters, were quick to pick up on the latest catchphrase.

That’s why a recent government initiative is being called, “A conversation on water.”

It’s going to involve the public directly at 20 venues across the province, and online participation by means of a workbook you can submit.

The government wants to converse with the public about four major water issues. The big one of concern to agriculture is water management.

That’s the one that covers irrigation, and it’s the elephant in the room.

Whether by accident or design, the irrigation elephant is not specifically mentioned in the online workbook or the initiative overview — though some small reference is made to agricultural usage.

Much is made of water conservation, clean water, access, pollution and fracking concerns — all noble causes. But I’m not so sure that citizens in favour of all that would like to see more of that water go to irrigated-production agriculture.

I believe the average urbanite is more prepared to pay a price for watching more water flow down a river, rather than watch it go through an irrigation pivot. Therein lies the problem for agriculture and it does not bode well for any future water development for more irrigation in this province.

I expect that standing still and being ignored by other water users would be the best outcome that could be achieved for the industry.

Irrigation faces formidable foes, particularly from environmental groups like Ecojustice (the green-washed name for the U.S.- based Sierra Legal Defence Fund) and the WaterKeeper groups (also U.S.-based).

Such groups tend to be anti-development and anti-agriculture. Those organizations employ lawyers and lobbyists to pursue their intentions, and they have a long history of being successful. You can be assured that their employees will be making presentations at the venues and directly to government politicians.

If irrigation or agriculture is mentioned by those antagonists, it will surely not be positive.

I should mention that the irrigation industry does understand their political situation and the need to lobby for their side and promote the positive aspects of irrigation.

The Alberta Irrigation Projects Association did engage in a PR campaign last year, but it was perhaps a little premature and only a modest effort.

In reading between the lines of government water policy and guidelines, I perceive that future expansion of irrigation is just not going to happen. That would require more dams and reservoirs, and that is going nowhere.

For significant expansion, it would require a transfer of water between north and south water basins. The Alberta government is already opposed to such an idea, no matter what the economic benefits.

A research project by the Alberta Water Council on basin transfer recommended a complex decision-making process that would effectively derail the idea. The study didn’t address the positive aspects of such a transfer — that being many millions in ag production.

The study told the government what it wanted to hear and the transfer concept is effectively dead.

Interestingly, the transfer study didn’t include anyone from agriculture, nor any significant consultation with the industry.

That’s just another example where the elephant is by accident or design ignored. One notes that the Alberta Water Council, out of 24 members, has only five members that have any connection to agriculture (remember that ag uses more than 60 per cent of the allocated water).

One could appreciate the quandary the irrigation industry is in — does it aggressively promote its value to society and play a significant role in the Water Conversations. Perhaps that would alert a naive public as to the actual use of most of the allocated water in Alberta.

Then again, maybe it would be best to leave a sleeping dog lie and let the government do what it does best with “conversations.”

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.

— AHEAD OF THE HEARD