Project – 9 – Water Cultures and Irrigation Farming in Alberta

  • Location: University of Alberta
  • Research Team: Dr. John Parkins, Gaylene Halter, Mike Kennedy
  • Duration: October 2009 – March 2011

Brief Project Description/Overview: 
Canadians hold strongly to the belief that water is an abundant natural resource. At the same time, current systems of water management are under strain from industrial development and a regulatory legacy that is difficult to change. Recognizing the socially embedded context of water regulation, this study will identify and examine the deeply held belief systems of key water users and regulators in Alberta as a way of understanding the conditions and pathways for change in water regulation. Research will focus on the case of irrigation farmers in southern Alberta and guiding questions for this study are as follows. (1) What are the underlying norms and practices that are associated with water use among southern Alberta irrigation farmers? (2) How do these irrigation farmers maintain their place of privilege as water users in the province?

This study draws on a sociological theory of field and habitus, with attention to issues of culture and power. Field research will include in-depth interviews with key actors in the field of water management in Alberta, and members of the irrigation farming community. These interviews will be supplemented with Q-method (a structured approach to analyzing the logic of belief systems that includes ethnographic and factorial techniques) as a way to gain deeper insight into the dominant discourses that help to sustain regulatory arrangements among current water users.

Policy relevance from this project is derived from current efforts within the province to address water management challenges and ways of introducing new policy mechanisms such as market-based instruments. Water management is deeply embedded in social relationship and social institutions, and a deeper understanding of the foundational belief systems (value, norms, and cultures) of key social actors such as producers, regulators, and local residents will provide insights into the possibilities, directions, and acceptabilities of water management transformation.

Deliverables from this project will include the following. (1) A research report on belief systems and possibilities for change in water management. (2) A policy paper on the basic social conditions for water management transformation and the directions and limits of change (with attention to market-based instruments). This policy paper will be based in part on completed analysis of water use and regulation issues in the Battle River Watershed.