Proposals to move massive volumes of water between river basins in Alberta and to allow its Irrigation Districts to sell water for non-agricultural uses indicate the province may soon be critically short of water, and should serve as a warning to the rest of the country, according to an authoritative report published on Earth Day.
“Despite what people may think, Canada has just seven per cent of the world’s renewable water supply, and in provinces like Alberta growing water scarcity is testing provincial administrations like never before,” said Randy Christensen, co-author of the report, and a lawyer with the environmental law firm Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund).
Christensen, a leading authority on the laws governing water use in Canada, notes that as Alberta’s economy booms the strains on its water supplies have reached critical levels. The report, Fight to the Last Drop: A Glimpse into Alberta’s Water Future, goes on to note that Alberta’s share of Canada’s renewable freshwater supply is just 2.2 per cent, and that 80 per cent of the province’s renewable water supply is in the north while 80 per cent of Alberta’s population is in the south.
The report focuses on two highly contentious proposals to divert water or to redirect it to other uses, both of which triggered strong public reaction in Alberta last year. One involved the Balzac development – a casino, horse racing track and shopping mall development north of Calgary – and a proposal to pipe water via an “intrabasin” transfer from the Red Deer River, just over 200 km away. Public outcry ultimately led the developer to purchase water from the Western Irrigation District, which along with other Irrigation Districts in southern Alberta, controls three quarters of the region’s water supplies.
The second involved, a blanket proposal by the Eastern Irrigation District (EID) to amend two of its water licences – a precursor to a potentially massive reallocation of water to non-farm or irrigation purposes. Only after public opposition was the proposal covering a massive 900 billion litres of water put on hold, pending a provincial government review.
“We can expect more proposals like this in the months and years ahead as global warming and other factors continue to wreak havoc on Alberta’s freshwater supplies,” said Danielle Droitsch, director of Bow Riverkeeper, and the report’s co-author. “And the central question is how the province plans to deal with them.”
The report gives credit to the Alberta government for placing a moratorium on future water licences in southern Alberta and for launching a review following its suspension of the EID application. The review is meant to address whether Irrigation Districts in future years will be able to do what the EID hoped to do and become water brokers, essentially selling the water to whatever buyers they wish.
“It is absolutely critical that members of the public be able to fully participate in that review given the enormous challenges Alberta faces with increasing water demand and shrinking water resources,” Christensen said. “We strongly believe that the sale of water rights in Alberta, without robust regulations to protect the public interest and the environment, poses major risks for aquatic ecosystems and public access to sustainable supplies of clean freshwater and would set a dangerous precedent for Canada.”