Oasis on the prairie: quantifying and characterizing the water resources of the Mattheis Research Ranch

Dr. Miles Dyck | Assistant Professor
Department of Renewable Resources
Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences
University of Alberta

Water quantity and quality are important issues that affect and are affected by the management of rangelands in southern Alberta. The Mattheis Research Ranch has significant surface water resources, including the Red Deer River at the north and Matzhiwin Creek at the south of the property, and a series of created wetlands that cover approximately 400 hectares. Irrigation water circulates through these wetlands before being delivered to cultivated fields and to the rest of the ranch where it is partitioned into evaporation, transpiration and groundwater recharge. Water that moves into the sandy soil is protected from evaporation and available to recharge the surrounding wetlands and provide moisture for growing vegetation. By monitoring a network of groundwater wells over the course of two growing seasons, Dr. Miles Dyck and co-investigator Dr. Bill Shotyk were able to characterize the spatial and temporal variability of groundwater quality on the Mattheis Ranch. While groundwater levels were highest everywhere soon after the spring snowmelt and decreased through the summer months, levels did not change in the same magnitude across all wells, reflecting the unique conditions of each site affecting groundwater recharge and use. Anthropogenic activities (e.g., irrigation) also seemed to impact groundwater quality at select sites, as indicated by high levels of chloride, a type of salt not naturally found in high concentrations in fresh water. Understanding how groundwater levels change over the course of the growing season allows irrigation managers to ensure proper drainage of the root zone to prevent adverse effects on plants from rising levels of salt impacted water. Steps can also be take to carefully manage areas that are impacted by salts to limit increases in concentration and prevent migration through the groundwater resource. Future work to determine the direction and rate of groundwater flow would aid in these management decisions.