The province's new water management plan for southern Alberta will help balance the needs of the environment and the economy,theenvironment ministersays.

The South Saskatchewan water management plan will limit the amount of water used in southern part of the the province.

Guy Boutilier said Wednesday that under the plan, the province will not accept new applications for water licences onthe Bow, South Saskatchewan or Oldman rivers, in the hopes of reducing water consumption by 30 per cent over the next few years.

The licences are issued by Alberta Environment under the Water Resources Act and allow users ranging in size from small farming operations to the city of Calgary to take water from the rivers.

There are currently more than 20,000 licences for the Bow River alone.

"This is a monumental and significant decision that clearly demonstrates this government's commitment to protecting our watersheds, while sustaining our economy," Boutilier saidin a release.

"By no longer accepting new water licences, we can ensure our river systems are better protected for this generation and generations to come, and encourage Albertans to become more efficient and innovative in their water use."

Water allocations in the area may still be obtained through allocation transfers.

More needs to be done says group

An environmental group working to protect the Bow River said it supports the measures, but adds that much more needs to be done.

Danielle Droitsch, head of theBow Riverkeeper organization,told CBC News Wednesdaythat she thinks too many licences have already been granted.

Droitsch compared the situation to someone who is in debt and decides not to spend any more money. Even though they've stopped spending, she said, they're still in debt.

"The lowest part of the Bow River …is considered the most heavily degraded stretch of river in all of southern Alberta … and that's because of water diversion," Droitsch said.

The province should also consider limiting water usage on rivers in central and northern Alberta, she said.

Wake-up call

Bob Sandford, chair of the United Nations Water for Life Initiative, called the new plan a significant decision that will affect everyone.

"We now recognize how important water is and we also recognize that it is going to be important for all of us to be involved in the conservation of water as a resource," said Sandford.

"If you live in Calgary or on the Bow or any of the other tributaries of the South Saskatchewan, it's a wake-up call — it means that water conservation is coming."

Sandford said all usersmust work together on ways to manage water so everyone's needs are met, adding that he doesn't want to see Alberta end up with an American style of dispute settlement that often ends up in the courts.