The challenge of managing water risk

Water is an essential element of agricultural production. But it’s a relationship that requires a delicate balance. Too little water means a withering of growth, but too much of it can wash away hopes too.

Water is an essential element of agricultural production. But it’s a relationship that requires a delicate balance.

Too little water means a withering of growth, but too much of it can wash away hopes too.

Farmers in Alberta can manage much of their production risk through crop insurance. But like their urban counterparts, flood insurance protection for homes, barns and other structures is not an option.

The disastrous 2013 flood in Calgary drew major attention to the lack of a flood insurance options for all Albertans.

In fact, Canada is the only one of the G-8 nations without some kind of flood insurance coverage.

A study released in 2013, ironically just before the big flood, looked at the viability of overland flood insurance in Canada.

The work was commissioned by the Co-operators, and it outlined the industry’s concern over too little government action to mitigate flood risks. The other big issue the report noted is a lack of reliable flood mapping.

When there’s a challenge in agricultural insurance, the go-to guy has become Central Alberta’s own Rick McConnell. After many years with AFSC, he did work internationally in crop insurance in places like Ukraine and Guatemala.

Presented with this latest dilemma, McConnell has been working with the Alberta Federation of Agriculture and Aquanty Hydrosphere Analytics on developing a project that might answer the insurance industry’s needs, and lead to better protection and planning for all kinds of water-related issues.

McConnell explained that to define “water risk’’ for the research work, they needed to expand the scope beyond just “water flowing over a river’s banks.”

That only impacts limited numbers of people located near rivers. If you broaden the picture to include heavy rains, which prevent seeding or flood out crops because of saturated soil, and then add in drought, you’ve got something that impacts basically all farmers.

But how do you find a way to accurately describe the entire water cycle?

“There are computer hydrology models to simulate how water moves through the landscape,” explained McConnell. “But most of them have been simpler, focusing on a particular part of the cycle in a certain area.”

Examining a water flow challenge of this magnitude and complexity would take a much bigger, holistic approach, and a whole lot of computer power. Fortunately, the Waterloo, Ont., firm of Aquanty has one of the world’s leading hydrology models and the computer resources available for such a task.

So the Alberta Federation of Agriculture is hoping to get a project going to showcase all that such a comprehensive water flow forecaster could do.

McConnell pointed out that insurance companies haven’t wanted to deal with flood insurance, because without solid numbers to reflect the risks they face, they can’t set a premium rate.

“If we could showcase this system works for rural areas, it could also apply to urban settings, and help convince international re-insurance companies to get involved. They backstop local insurance companies. It could take away the excuses insurance companies use to opt out of flood insurance.”

If funding from the Agri-Risks Initiative under Growing Forward 2 can be secured, the project would focus on the South Saskatchewan River basin first. It would run data for the last 20 years through the hydrologic computer simulation model, to assess the risk of water-related events. Factors such as elevations, land contours, soils, rainfall and snowmelt would all be plugged into the mathematical equations for flow.

“Then the model could be tested on certain things in history,” outlined McConnell. “We could tell if a quarter section of land was too wet to seed, and then compare it to crop insurance claims. Once we calibrate the model to many events, we could go to the re-insurers and demonstrate the predictability of the past.

“Then we could start looking at 2016, and use soil probes, satellite imagery and crop conditions to check the model’s water movement estimates for the present. That would support the model’s predictions for the future. Assessing climate change could also be built in.”

The potential for the model is huge. It could be used to establish premium rates for flood insurance. But you could also build a virtual dam and assess its impact, and compare that with other water diversion strategies. It could project flow of contamination from an oil or gas spill, because those flow along with the water. It could be used for irrigation planning, or assessing fisheries habitat.

“Once it’s set up . . . while the focus is for assessing for water-related risk of overland flooding, excess moisture and moisture deficiencies in an insurance context in rural areas, it could easily be used to expand and answer questions for urban areas for flood. Questions for any water-related issues could be posed.”

“Once you’ve got it done for the South Saskatchewan, it wouldn’t be as costly to do it for the North Saskatchewan, because all the things you’ve put into this for insurance purposes would be known now, and you’d just have to enter the data from that river area.”

But the whole idea has to start somewhere. Because of the vast rural areas dependent on the right amount of water for food production, having agriculture lead the charge for such a comprehensive water model seems fitting.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing whether the federal agriculture minister agrees, and provides the research funds to get the ball rolling this spring.

Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 1,731 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday

The province’s central zone has 992 active cases

Collin Orthner, manager at McBain Camera in downtown Red Deer, stands behind the store’s counter on Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
A few Red Deer businesses happy with Black Friday results

While this year’s Black Friday wasn’t as successful as it was in… Continue reading

Le Chateau Inc. is the latest Canadian firm to start producing personal protective equipment for health care workers, in a July 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Hundreds of millions of dollars for frontline workers yet to be released, says Alberta Federation of Labour

Information recently released by the Alberta Federation of Labour suggests more than… Continue reading

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Man killed in two-vehicle collision near Penhold, says Blackfalds RCMP

A 46-year-old man is dead following a two-vehicle collision on Highway 42… Continue reading

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Banff National Park. (The Canadian Press)
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

EDMONTON — A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks… Continue reading

Cows on pasture at the University of Vermont dairy farm eat hay Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. Canadian dairy farmers are demanding compensation from the government because of losses to their industry they say have been caused by a series of international trade deals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lisa Rathke
Feds unveil more funding for dairy, poultry and egg farmers hurt by free trade deals

OTTAWA — Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Canada's top doctor says the country is still on a troubling track for new COVID-19 infections as case counts continue mounting in much of the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
COVID-19 cases in Canada remain on troubling course, Tam says, amid rising numbers

Canada’s top doctor says the country is still on a troubling track… Continue reading

Hay’s Daze: Giraffe knows filling wishes can sometimes be a tall order

Last weekend, I had a lovely breakfast. “So what?” you may say.… Continue reading

A person enters a building as snow falls in Ottawa, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Ottawa has been successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 during its second wave thanks to the city’s residents who have been wearing masks and staying home, said Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
People to thank for Ottawa’s success with curbing COVID-19: health officer

The city’s chief medical officer said much of the credit goes to the people who live in Ottawa

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says tonight's public video gaming session with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is about reaching young people where they hang. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP leader stoked over ‘epic crossover’ in video gaming sesh with AOC

Singh and AOC discussed importance of universal pharmacare, political civility, a living wage

A south view of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf breaking apart is seen from Ward Hunt Island, Nunavut, in an Aug. 20, 2011, handout photo. The remote area in the northern reach of the Nunavut Territory, has seen ice cover shrink from over 4 metres thick in the 1950s to complete loss, according to scientists, during recent years of record warming. Scientists are urging the federal government to permanently protect a vast stretch of Canada's remotest High Arctic called the Last Ice Area. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-CEN/Laval University, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Scientists urge permanent protection of Last Ice Area in Canada’s High Arctic

Tuvaijuittuq has the thickest and oldest ice in the Arctic

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s $55 million Lotto Max jackpot

No winning ticket was sold for the $55 million jackpot in Friday… Continue reading

Most Read