Kerry Brewin, Senior Biologist with Dillon Consulting Limited
Water is a scarce and valuable resource in many parts of Alberta. Many of the
phrases used to describe water help reveal its importance. These include descriptors
as "our life blood", and "blue gold".
The phrase "Whiskey's for drinking, and water’s for fighting
over," and predictions that the wars of the 21st century will be fought
over water conflicts, also help to emphasize the importance of water locally,
as well as internationally and globally.
During the last 20 years I’ve either participated in, or observed, many
of Alberta’s water-related issues and conflicts. Although at times it
seemed like change occurred very slowly, or we were sometimes slipping backwards,
it is clear that solid progress has been made on some of the issues over the
past two decades.
Throughout most of the early 1980’s and early 1990s the Oldman River
Dam (or Three Rivers Dam as many opponents called it) was the dominant water
issue in Alberta. Flashpoints included armed conflicts, court battles and drought
– followed by severe flooding that some claim almost wiped out the Dam
and downstream residents. The Oldman River Dam conflict, and others like it,
convinced the Province that the old Water Resources Act had served
its purpose and that new legislation was necessary to tackle the challenges
of the 21st century. After all, the original Act was originally intended to
assist in the allocation of what many thought was an unlimited resource.
During the legislative review the environmental implications of water diversions
and problems with over-allocations were becoming better understood. Conservationists
were calling for tools to improve conservation, and to protect the ecological
integrity of Alberta’s watersheds through the development and implementation
of water management plans. While their objectives were founded on reasoned arguments,
their numbers were small, and they typically were associated with a handful
of organizations with severe resource constraints. In contrast, many of the
traditional consumptive water users were well-established and knew how to get
the ear of the politicians.
Despite the obstacles, it was clear that the legislative status quo
had to change and a new provincial Water Act was brought into force
in on January 1, 1999. The new Act protected all the licenses that
were already in effect, but it is a much more modern piece of legislation and
is armed with many of the tools resource managers need to protect and restore
the ecological integrity of our river systems. Under that Act, the
province recently announced a province-wide strategy for managing our water
resources. Known as “Water for Life: Alberta’s Strategy for
Sustainability”, the strategy is forward-thinking and will help us
better deal with today’s, as well as tomorrow’s, water challenges.
Some of the news ways of doing business that the Water for Life strategy calls
- Having the Oil and Gas industry restricting the use of potable water sources
for production well injection, and reducing the amount of water being used
in consumptive processes such as oil sands development; and
- Having the municipalities and the Pulp and Paper reduce consumptive uses
water through recycling initiatives.
As recently as five years ago, almost every water-related issue dealt with
surface water quality or quantity. About the only thing ever mentioned about
groundwater resources was that very little was known about the resource. Concerns
about how coalbed methane operations could affect rural groundwater supplies
have moved some of the spotlight to groundwater issues. Today, more attention
is being given to documenting the status of existing groundwater reserves to
ensure their wise management.
The champions of Alberta’s water resources have also changed substantially
during the last two decades. The diverse array of those providing input on water
management decisions now includes all levels of government, environmental organizations,
grassroots stakeholders, First Nations, and the agriculture industry, as well
as: industry players from oil and gas, hydro production, forestry and mining.
The number of local watershed groups that are actively promoting Best Management
Practices that help protect local aquatic resources has exploded in the last
5-7 years. These stewardship groups now occur in almost every watershed in the
settled portion of the province.
With the new Water Act and Water for Life Strategy in place, we are now forced
with facing some of our toughest challenges like how to deal with new demands
for water in areas where over-allocations may already have occurred. In moving
this forward, the Province recently announced that, with the exception of the
Red Deer sub-basin, no more surface water is available to allocate to new licenses
in the entire South Saskatchewan River Basin. Proponents of new developments
in this Basin basically have only four options:
- Use deep groundwater resources as their water supply;
- Obtain surface water through an existing license;
- Move the development to another basin where surface water is still available;
- Abandon the development.
Obviously, these limitations can have severe impacts on development and the
economic implications of living in an area where water supplies during dry years
are stretched to, or beyond, their limit. Although the situation isn’t
as critical (yet) in other basins across the province, it is clear that the
demands we are placing on our water resources will eventually out-strip our
supply if precautions are not taken.
There is little doubt that conflicts around water use will continue and many
will likely escalate. Fortunately, and to the benefit of our collective water
resources, the public is taking a more active role and are continually becoming
better informed about Alberta’s water management issues. As well, resource
managers are receiving input on decisions, as well as decision making processes,
much sooner in the process and this is leading to better decision-making. Water
users, also, recognize the significance of the situation. Our past conflicts
certainly led to setting the bar higher, – however, only time will tell,
if it is high enough!