Alberta Faces Drought if Water System Not Improved, Report Warns

By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
October 9, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Roderick Hazewinkel
Roderick Hazewinkel, a limnologist with Alberta Environment, wades into the Athabasca River to take samples and measure water quality near Fort McMurray in September 2011. A new report warns that if Alberta doesn't change its current water policies, it may face massive emergency costs in the future because of drought and over-allocation of rivers. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

Well-known Canadian author and activist Maude Barlow once described Alberta’s water system as having the makings of “the perfect drought.”

A new report published by Canmore-based water protection group Water Matters echoes this warning, calling the provincial government’s water management system severely insufficient and plagued by “chronic water issues,” risking huge emergency costs in the future in the event of a drought.

Bill Donahue, director of science and policy for Water Matters and co-author of the report, says Alberta has a history of letting development lead water management policy, which has resulted in a vulnerable market system prone to shortages, infringement on First Nations treaty rights, inequity, and environmental degradation.

“Alberta’s approach all along [has been], ‘Well, we know where we want to go in terms of development, and therefore that will determine how we manage our water,’ rather than assessing, ‘Well, what are the limits in terms of sustainable development and keeping our rivers healthy?” he says.

The report comes on the heels of an announcement by Environment Minister Diana McQueen that public consultations on the future of water management in the province would be held beginning in late 2012 or early 2013.

The consultations will centre on four key areas: efficient water management including water market issues, healthy lakes, the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, and municipal issues including waste water.

Alberta’s water system follows the “first in time, first in right” (FIT-FIR) model that grants water licences on a first-come first-served basis.

Under this structure, senior licensees such as large municipalities or oil companies hold a disproportionate amount of power over the water system. It also allows the trading of surplus water, leaving newer licence holders vulnerable in times of shortage.

This is not in the public’s interest, the report notes.

“In many ways, senior licensees in many places and many parts of the province are the ones who are making the decisions in terms of what kind of development is now going to happen, and where, and whether or not they’ll get water,” says Donahue.

“When push comes to shove, should we as a province and as a society be subject to relying on the goodwill of senior licensees as opposed to having a plan as to how things will be done and what will unfold and where the priorities will be for water?”

Increased Development, More Demand

Barlow, national chairperson of the citizen’s advocacy group Council of Canadians, has called Alberta the province most at risk of a water crisis, due to pollution, over extraction of water, and a huge increase in development and demand.

Alberta is also particularly vulnerable to water shortages because of its geographical position in the rain shadow of the Rockies. This leaves the province heavily reliant on river water, which has suffered from long-term decline.

Intensive farming and oil sands production also adds significant pressure to the water supply. It is estimated that the oil sands alone extract enough water every 2.5 years to supply the entire city of Calgary for a year.

Alberta also holds only two percent of the country’s water supply but accounts for about 66 percent of Canada’s irrigation.

Donahue says that while the Water for Life strategy introduced by the Alberta government in 2003 to improve water safety and security in the province was a start, it ultimately failed because it lacks laws and policies to enforce it.

“It has no weight in the law—it’s really just kind of a wish-list. And so ultimately as a result of anything that is done under the Water for Life program, it doesn’t hold the strength of law behind it,” he says.

“It doesn’t hold the government’s feet to the fire either in terms of all these lofty goals of protecting sources of healthy drinking water and healthy rivers and sustainable economies.”

Learn from Australia’s Mistakes

Donohue notes that severe droughts in other countries have forced governments to spend billions on emergency measures to buy back water rights and protect river health, because they had previously over-allocated rivers.

The report warns that if Alberta does not develop a more comprehensive and sustainable water management plan, it could end up in a similar situation to Australia, which spent $8.9 billion recovering its over-allocated water rights in the midst of a severe drought.

“[Australia] is a clear example of the exceptional financial cost of unsustainable water management and haphazard introduction of water markets that do not have a clearly enunciated purpose that prioritizes protection of instream flows and river health,” reads the report.

Water Matters points to water management in Oregon as an example of a successful system that adapted to honour the rights of licence holders while balancing conservation and the public interest.

Speaking at a water forum at the University of Alberta in 2010, Barlow said that in order to move to a more sustainable water system Alberta should halt the market-based model, prioritize water based on need, and develop laws to ensure ecosystem health.

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