Province says it erred in warning it was curtailing water access for Alberta ranchers

The provincial government says it made a mistake when it told several ranchers in southern Alberta that it was curtailing their access to natural water that’s critical for their operations.

Warning triggered letter to Alberta Environmental Appeals Board

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says her department made a mistake when it closed water access applications from several southern Alberta ranchers. (Dean Bennett/The Canadian Press)

The provincial government says it made a mistake when it told several ranchers in southern Alberta that it was curtailing their access to natural water that's critical for their operations.

Aaron Brower, who owns a ranch along the Milk River basin near the U.S. border, received a letter from the province in December warning him that his 2001 application for five wells and three dams for livestock watering and household use was considered incomplete.

As a result, the government said it was closing the file, which meant Brower would be violating provincial law if he continued to use the wells and dams without a licence.

Several ranchers affected

According to an appeal Brower's lawyer filed with the Alberta Environmental Appeals Board, several other ranchers received similar letters.

Brower's family runs a large, fourth-generation ranch that was originally a North West Mounted Police outpost.

"Mr. Brower asked for an explanation as to why it has taken the department over 16 years to work on his family's application," the appeal said.

A government official "offered no explanation," the document said.

Brower later "pleaded with several government officials to simply hold the existing application open, advise him of the additional information that the department seeks and that he would promptly provide it," according to his appeal, filed by Wilson Law Office on Jan. 26.

The province refused, the appeal document said.

Rancher warned he was using water without licence

"He was further warned that his case would be handed over to the compliance and enforcement officers of the department because he is now operating his ranch without proper water rights," said the appeal.

The appeal claimed the government's decision was "premature, unfair, improper and unlawful."

After CBC News asked the provincial government to comment, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said in a statement Friday that her department had made a mistake.

Government says it made mistake

"First, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that not a single rancher in Alberta is going to be stripped of their water access," Phillips said.

"Department officials, in their work to address some legacy issues around modernizing water licences, incorrectly closed applications from a small number of producers who needed to provide some additional information in modernizing their licendes. We are now working to correct this error.

"Ranchers and farmers in Alberta are the foundation on which Alberta was built and they will be respected as these issues are resolved. I have directed my officials to sit down with each and every rancher who has licence issues and support them in ensuring they have the access to water they need to continue to care for their livestock and earn a living off the land."

Phillips said any rancher who received a letter in December about their water access licences should contact her office.

Brower declined to comment on the government's error.