Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Bow River Irrigation Project developed the waters of the Bow River for irrigation purposes in the semiarid districts of south-central Alberta. It was not the first irrigation project in western Canada, but eventually it became one of the largest. The project serves an area of 530,000 acres of land lying between the cities of Medicine Hat, Calgary, and Lethbridge in southern Alberta and has brought approximately 210,000 acres under irrigation.

The Bow River Irrigation Project traces its origins to the Grand Forks Cattle Company, which was incorporated in 1903. That company was a successful ranching operation, but in 1906 its operations were taken over by the Robins Irrigation Company, which applied to the federal government of Canada for authority to purchase 151,180 acres of land as well as for water rights to develop irrigation works for 95,143 acres of that land. Di.culties in raising the required capital resulted in a reorganization under which the Southern Alberta Land Company acquired the assets of the former Grand Forks Cattle Company and of the Robins Irrigation Company.

The Southern Alberta Land Company began construction of water diversion works in 1909, but failure or legal inability to sell irrigation lands before it had completed construction of all the irrigation works, coupled with a major accident at one of its headgates and a severe tightening of the financial markets in London just before the outbreak of World War I, forced the Southern Alberta Land Company into receivership in June 1914. Difficult and legally contentious negotiations resulted in acquisition of the assets and obligations of the Southern Alberta Land Company by the Canada Land and Irrigation Company in 1917.

Water for irrigation purposes was first delivered by the Canada Land and Irrigation Company in 1920, but severely depressed prices for wheat in 1922–23, and even more disastrous drought and commodity price declines after 1929, made it impossible for the company to meet its financial obligations. Its operations were taken over in 1935 by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), which continues to operate the huge irrigation works today.

The Bow River Irrigation Project brought the benefits of irrigation to more than 200,000 acres of arid and semiarid prairie. Irrigation has dramatically increased the productive capacity of vast tracts of prairie lands, but, at least in dry years, those irrigation projects have exhausted the available water supplies. They now threaten the ecology of the entire Bow River drainage basin.

See also AGRICULTURE: Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration.

Ted D. Regehr University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary

Gilpin, John. Prairie Promises: History of the Bow River Irrigation District. Vauxhall, Alberta: Bow River Irrigation District, 1976.

Kirk, D. W. The Bow River Irrigation Project: The History and Development of the Bow River Irrigation Project up to and Including Its Purchase by the Government of Canada in 1950. Regina, Saskatchewan: Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, 1955.

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