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Blueprint Alberta: H20



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The Expert's Opinion

Our past conflicts have set the bar higher
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 for include:

  • 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; or
  • 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!

More Experts

David Pryce
Vice President, Western Canada Operations, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

Camille Dow Baker
President & CEO of the Centre for Affordable Water & Sanitation Technology (CAWST)

Robert D. Tarleck
Mayor, City of Lethbridge

Oliver M. Brandes
Water Sustainability Project at the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance

Dr. Mary Griffiths
Senior Policy Analyst, The Pembina Institute

C. Lacombe
Editor of Irrigating Alberta

Mark Bennett
Bow River Basin Council

Chris Godwaldt
Alberta WaterSMART

Kerry Brewin
Senior Biologist with Dillon Consulting Limited

Kent Robinson
Acting CAO MD of Rocky View

Maureen Bell
Water Conservation Trust of Canada


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Salt water makes up 97.5 per cent of the world's water. Only 2.5 per cent can be used to drink, and grow food.

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