Water stewardship in an agricultural supply chain: pilot project identifies benefits and challenges

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From March 2021 to March 2023, a pilot project in the Oldman River Watershed was conducted to explore water stewardship through the agri-food supply chain in southern Alberta. The project piloted water stewardship planning with operations at different levels within the supply chain, and assessed the opportunities and challenges of water stewardship for the agriculture and agri-food industry overall. The three primary representatives engaged within the potato supply chain were St. Mary River Irrigation District (the water supplier), a potato producer operation near Taber (the producer), and Cavendish Farms Lethbridge site (the processor). Many other diverse organizations with expertise in agriculture and water in Southern Alberta contributed throughout the project.  

The “Agriculture’s Water Future: Advancing the Uptake of Water Stewardship in Agri-food Supply Chains” (AWF Phase III) project was the third phase of the Agriculture’s Water Future project work. Through each phase, the project increased understanding of what is needed, collaboratively progressed planning work, and built relationships with key sector representatives. 

Organizations participated in the AWF Phase III project as Implementers, Working Group members, advisors, and Steering Committee members. The participants contributed their time and expertise from a variety of relevant backgrounds, which is invaluable for ensuring the project learnings and results are robust and widely applicable.  

WaterSMART Solutions Ltd. coordinated the project work, including facilitating four working sessions involving all participants. The Working Group meetings were critical for identifying and examining the opportunities and challenges of water stewardship for the agriculture and agri-food industry in southern Alberta.  

The project used the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard as a guide for the water stewardship planning process. This internationally recognized standard was designed based on the ISO 14001 and is an involved process with a cycle of continual improvement. Reference and guidance materials published by the Alliance for Water Stewardship, as well as project advisors familiar with the standard, guided the pilot project work.  

The AWF Phase III project was funded by Alberta Innovates, Prairies Economic Development Canada, Nutrien, Cavendish Farms, and Alberta Irrigation Districts Association.  

Is water stewardship planning valuable for an implementer? 

Key learnings from the project demonstrated that water stewardship planning was beneficial for the two project Implementers (St. Mary River Irrigation District, and Cavendish Farms Lethbridge site). The relationships developed, the information gathered, the documentation of water stewardship work, and the planning process overall were valuable to the Implementers for both internal and external communication. Water stewardship planning includes identifying and assessing water-related risks, which supports operational planning and risk management. One risk identified by the Implementers was changing water supply and timing, which is being addressed through ongoing engagement in collaborative watershed planning processes. The planning process also identifies opportunities, which leads to the development of concrete actions that can leverage these opportunities, benefiting the Implementer in unexpected ways. One opportunity identified and pursued was a water supply agreement between the Implementers for on-site irrigation water. 


A key outcome of the project related to documentation. The detailed planning for water stewardship requires a significant amount of time and effort for documentation. An implementer can operate as a water steward without documenting their work but may not be recognized for it.  

Water stewardship in the agri-food supply chain is closely linked with demonstrating overall sustainability and responsible resource use. There is increasing scrutiny around the responsible use of water resources from retailers, restaurants, consumers, and other parties outside the industry. Water stewardship planning and implementation is a systematic way to review one’s operation and respond with accountability regarding water.  

Producer learnings 

The AWF Phase III project engaged a number of producers and specifically explored the challenges and opportunities for producers in relation to water stewardship. The project found that annual documentation for water stewardship would be a significant burden for producers, impacting their business viability and identifying an opportunity for compensation from buyers who request this type of annual documentation. Producers expressed willingness to implement water management practices on their property, noting that many are already in place, but annual monitoring and reporting should be derived from existing regularly reported information. Producers identified that different sustainability reporting expectations from each buyer, or each crop sector, create an unreasonable administrative burden for their operations, highlighting an opportunity for agriculture commodity sectors to combine their reporting requirements. The document at the bottom of this article, “One-page summary of project results for a producer,” provides more information.  

In summary, producers are the foundation of the agri-food supply chain; if the pressures they face are addressed, producers could actively support the sustainability reporting requirements for the whole supply chain and be fairly compensated for it. Further project work is ongoing to explore additional learnings from producers, specifically to identify a potential path forward for resolving the pressures on producers, and to meet the reporting needs of buyers.  

Publication Documents 

The final report, available in the list below, summarizes the project activities and synthesizes the learnings and results. The project also resulted in numerous guidance documents; the key deliverables were the water stewardship plans completed with each of the Implementer organizations. An example version of each was created as a tool for future implementers to follow. Both example water stewardship plans can be downloaded from the publications list below. The other documents in the publications list are also deliverable documents developed through the project.


Table of Contents