Ira Blakley, Consul Project Manager AAFC (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) interviewed by Meagan Gough [MG] in 2008

My name is Ira Thomas Blakley. I was born in 1960 in June, born in Eastend, but lived the rest of my life here in Consul.

I have been manager here for 11 years. I took over after Don Kisell. He’s a predecessor of mine; he taught me everything I know about water, irrigation, dam operation and all that. I was actually going back through the history book last night; I’m actually the fourth project manager of Consul Irrigation Project. It started back in I believe 1936 give or take a day and by the looks of things by the way we are going, I will be the last manager. They are hoping to turn the projects over to the irrigators so it will all be private so my duties will go from project manager to infrastructure manager. That’s just basically looking after our diversions and reservoirs and work like that. We deliver the water to the irrigators’ ditches and then they have to maintain it after that. In this area, we have over five thousand square kilometres that we monitor. It goes onto the other side into Elkwater, Alberta and all across Cypress Hills and we come right down to the U.S. border. We have four drainage basins we call them and they all head towards the U.S. so we deal a lot with international water apportionments. The two of them, we don’t have too much to do with them, we just release them whenever we owe the U.S. their water. The other ones, like Cypress Lake and Battle Creek, I deal with the Frenchman (River) which is on the east side of Cypress Lake; I do the top end work and then the project managers in Eastend and Val Marie look after it from there on. This time of year, in the spring, it’s usually getting busy because of the spring runoff.

In thirty one years of working here, I only remember two years of no irrigation. A lot of years it was half irrigation, and of course, we had two irrigations maybe twice in that many years and the rest has all been single irrigations. We found that the land around here is producing more hay by not irrigating so much, because it is real heavy soil so that the water cannot get away. They are promoting sprinklers right now – wheel moves and pivots – but the type of land it is down here it’s not suitable for because it’s such heavy land so therefore they are trying to get everybody to move up to bigger bodies of water so they can pump directly out. The allocation of water in this area – we are over allocated – we are allocated two feet of water on our land and the last few years we have probably been averaging less than a foot due to shortages and problems with irrigations. There is a fairly big area of drought that we are into right now – it covers Maple Creek area all the way over to Eastend and Val Marie, all of that Southwest corner.
If we had to start irrigating tomorrow, (March 14, 2008) there would be no irrigation. We have no water in Cypress Lake. Our reservoir, Cypress Lake, it stores 104,000 acre feet of water and right now I think there is 16,000, so there’s not even enough to get the pumps wet to start. So, to get us back to where we were last year, we need 10,000 acre feet of water and it’s possible, but with no snow and stuff, it’s unlikely and so it just depends on the rains and that. To get a half irrigation, we’re looking at about 6,000, so again – it’s possible if the weather turns and gives us wet snow and rain, but we’ve only got a couple months and that will be the end of it. Same with our other reservoirs. We’ve got a Middle Creek Reservoir right over on the Alberta border and the last time I was over there you could drive right across; there was zero water in it. But with a little snow melt they’ll get some, but not even close to usual. That reservoir, I have only seen it overflow twice in the years I have been here. Dry, I could probably count how many times they have irrigated easier than the times when they had no water and they still pay operation and maintenance for that dam, so they are paying for nothing. They pay five bucks an acre for no return. So, it’s pretty tough for a few of the ranchers over there. The Altawan Reservoir is closer to the international border, the U.S., and I have only seen that go maybe one year without irrigation. Other than that, its watershed is huge and you get those west of the Elkwater Provincial Park over there so its drainage area is huge, so it can hold a lot of water. There are a number of small reservoirs over there that collect water first; usually they are in good shape and they should have irrigation this year. South of Consul, there is the Nashlyn Dam and it handles just over five hundred acre feet.

MG: What do you think about them privatizing?

I guess I have mixed feelings about it. On the PFRA side of it, which I have to speak up for, PFRA started this project years ago, I believe in 1935, and they got it all going and everything. They promoted irrigation down here. At that time, anyone who had anything to do with irrigation thought this was the ideal country to do it in – they could come and go in, you know, in terms of the lay of the land and how projects were set up. But over the years, they have seen in the states for instance, that they maybe should have promoted a better area, on richer land, sandier ground and stuff. But as they say, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty”. Now that they are stepping back and looking at it, they have found with the costs of operations and that, on an average it costs give or take, right around $160,000 to operate this project. We used to have two full time people working for me, seasonal staff I should say, and so you know with wages and cut down of chemical use, and a lot of the other work, I have cut my costs down. But with the cost of fuel still going up, they claim it’s about $80.00 an acre to maintain this project – well, all five projects in this area, in our district. But, it’s a little misleading because it isn’t just material bought and labour, its office staff, administration and the bosses of bosses of bosses. You know they all have to have their fingers in the pie to justify their position and to keep the bread coming to them.

And when I look back more from the irrigators’ side, I think that’s misleading. They paint a very sour picture to Ottawa that gives us the money to operate, say it’s not viable to keep these projects going. So, instead of upping our “O and M”, our Operations and Maintenance bill, they have maintained it at $8.60 an acre and we have gone in the hole so bad that the bean counters in Ottawa don’t want to throw money this way. So there’s been a group of people that showed them ways of getting out of it and now they have a ten year deal to go through, so in 2016, all projects are supposed to be turned over to the irrigators and PFRA will be just looking after reservoirs and diversions. So, you’re looking at just in this area it affects probably right around 60 irrigators, so in that case the irrigators are going to have to pull up their socks and start applying money to more water or better use of water.

But look at Consul, you have to drive many miles to get from one farm to another, well it’s such a big area it’s quite a deal. On the irrigators side, like I’m coming from that, I go into my meetings with the PFRA and I kind of argue more for the irrigators than I do for the PFRA because I was born and raised here and I know what it’s like to go without a lot of stuff just to keep things going, you know, to keep a family farm going. People are now working in the oil patch and everything to keep alive and then when PFRA pulls out, now there’s more of a burden on them to maintain a project and keep going.

Last fall, late summer it was, we did a structure assessment and a project assessment here. We brought in a private contractor and he did all five projects. We have Maple Creek, Rush Lake, Eastend and Val Marie and out of the five, this is the top ranking project, the one in the best shape and I felt that was a real good feather in Don Kisell’s hat and myself, because after reconstruction, Don Kisell was in charge of maintenance and running it and keeping it at the top and basically, when he retired, I stepped over and kept doing that stuff. It pays off, like maintaining a good vehicle and when it comes time for selling it, or giving it up, it’s still in good shape, or working, so the Consul irrigators have a real good project here to fall back on. They can probably go five or six years after we leave and the project should require zero maintenance; it should run on its own.

Another project that will be affected on this will be the Vidora Project. It’s a provincial project or private owned. Consul Irrigators are going to go that way. It’s needed some work and that. It’s an older project and it’s never been refitted, so a lot of their stuff is quite old and they’ve been just patching it up over the years, so a lot of the Consul irrigators over the years look at that and kinda say, “Well, either we can do the same as you and put in a little money and maintenance, or maintain it high and keep it until a longer date”. Myself, I have really mixed feelings about it. I wish PFRA would have just hung on and kept going, but when you are dealing with bean counters in Ottawa it’s pretty hard to. They think of us as a number out here, not so much as people.

But these dams were all built by PFRA to, at that time, guarantee water for irrigation and ranch cattle and stuff like that. Later, after that, the dams were basically, or talked about, recreation, you know, fishing and boating and stuff. So the reasoning for the dams and what they are used for now from the beginning is totally different. I guess that is PFRA’s way of getting more money to maintain the dams and then help out with the projects and stuff, because then anytime you mention tourism and that, well they think, we’ve got to get the people there and that works good on something like Cypress Lake.

I believe it’s 8 kilometres long, so it’s a big lake and good for fishing, boating and hunting, but at the same time, with the smaller reservoirs, they don’t attract people and it’s pretty hard to justify keeping them going. Until the last few years, Cypress Lake has really helped us down here. We were able to store enough water from one year to the next off of excess flows and then later on fall back on it.

We are trying to develop our inlet canals to catch rainwater which comes after at higher levels. We’re trying to improve them to get them bigger so they can handle those flash floods, so as I say, it’s pretty hard to go to Ottawa and say we need “x” amount of dollars, or a million dollars, for this little area and then the return is nothing, so they have troubles of backing us or wanting to give money.

There have been a few years when I have even seen Battle Creek dry up even north of us and never really get going by winter. It’s so hot and no rain and what not, so we lose a lot that way. It’s a struggle for water down here. We try to capture it and try to utilize it. I know Don Kisell and probably even Gilbert Hill, previous project managers, always have a battle with people to watch their drain waters and try to get them to try new ways to get them to irrigate their fields to improve the efficiency of their water, to basically help guarantee water next year. There are some people, they think, “Oh, it’s just like a tap, you turn it on”, but we try to educate them over the years about where our water actually comes from. There are still people who haven’t got a clue. You know, they get their water out of our ditch and after that they don’t know where it comes from. So it’s going to be quite an education for them to deal with the water when they take over.

I usually try to sit down with the irrigators and if I am going on a snow tour where I am going to check snow pack or if I am going to take a run out and look at water movement, I try to grab an irrigator that hasn’t been if he has the time and interest, to take him up and show him and it’s helping. You know, it’s getting there, but still there’s a long ways to go. Everybody is interested in water and concerned about it, but when it comes to their meetings to discuss any problems, they never show up. Out of 34 (thirty-four) irrigators we are lucky if we get twenty there and out of that twenty, six have to be elected as board members, who are very important people who try to keep everybody’s interests intact and keep running with it. Well now, with this project being turned over, they are getting over worked; for six [board members] it is way too much. Now they need to get kind of like committees started up and running with it, but when you can’t get everybody to be there, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe for them.

MG: So what would you like to see happen if you had an audience of Ottawa bureaucrats sitting here right now? What would be the bottom line of what you would like to communicate to them that this community needs?

IB: I guess a lot of it is promoting this water. I know that there are areas we can spend money so that in the long years maybe it could pay off. I don’t know if anyone in your travels has talked to you about a border dam? The Battle Creek Border Dam. They had a campaign go through for a few years and did a lot of checking into it and that. It was just at the top of the U.S. border and what it would do is store extra water that does not need to go to the states and not only would it benefit us up here so we can draw on Battle Creek a lot heavier and use Cypress Lake for the next year of irrigating and what not, but it could also help the Montana people with their irrigating as well. They could actually change their irrigation habits to get the water when it suits them and not when it comes to them. And it’s not just the Battle Creek one; there are other ones, like from the Frenchman River Valley.

So all flows of water that come in out of Alberta into Saskatchewan in this neck of the woods down here, on the St Mary’s River Project, or area, we have to give fifty percent of the water that crosses the Alberta border to the Americans.

Of course, any water that is gathered in Alberta, they of course, give us fifty percent of what they gather, but the other guys don’t release until late fall, so it never really gets to us. They measure theirs coming out of the reservoir where we have to gather right at the Alberta border to the U.S. border; we always feel short-changed on the deal. We end up coughing up more water than what we actually get. I heard there is a deal in one of the Medicine Hat papers, a news clipping, about a rancher complaining that they have to give up 50% of their water to Saskatchewan, but what they didn’t realize is 50% of that water, there is still another 50% of the water going to the Americans, so we only gain 25%, so she is quite a catch-22 on that. But that agreement has been drawn up for years, so…

I will be probably the last project manager retiring here, and it will be kind of interesting to see where the project goes after I am gone! I can come back and visit in between golf games!