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Climate change may see users vie for water

BANFF, Alta. — Canadians have a strong social safety net and large resource base to shelter them from the effects of climate change.

But for those struggling to cope with dwindling water supplies and the effects of extreme weather on their agriculture production, food security will turn into a global issue, said Jim Byrne of the University of Lethbridge during a recent science forum in Calgary.

The possible effects of climate change on the quality and quantity of fresh drinking water were among the topics discussed at the Alberta Institute of Agrologists annual meeting in Banff April 3-5.

“Climatological changes have always occurred and they will continue to occur. It is a huge unknown,” said David Chenasyk of the University of Alberta’s renewable resources department.

Bitter competition could develop among cities, agriculture and energy users as water supplies change, said Bob Sandford, the Epcor chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative, which works to translate research into water policy.

Growing and processing food takes a lot of water and Canada cannot grow or export food without it.

“Agriculture matters to our economy and our future,” he said.

It is imperative for agricultural interests to engage in the debate about food production and human dignity.

Nevertheless, scientists must continue to study how much variability in the water supply and climate is the result of natural functions and how much is caused by human activity.

“There is a great deal we just don’t know about natural variability,” he said.

However, wide-scale changes to the landscape in southern Canada have affected the hydrology system and subsequently the effects on climate.

“We have altered both surface flows and ground water recharge and at the same time we are leaving less water for nature to use and how much it can purify for our use,” he said.

The current water cycle is changing and countries must adapt as these variables increase in the future.

“The cost of adapting to these changes is currently incalculable,” he said.

A key area of research for many environmental scientists is the state of the Rocky Mountain glaciers, which have been shrinking for at least 150 years.

About 300 glaciers were lost in the Rocky Mountains between 1920-2005, with most disappearing in the last 60 years.

Glaciers are important for late season water supply and to maintain water temperatures for aquatic habitat. A ground penetrating radar survey is underway in the Columbia Icefields to learn how much ice is present in the mountains.

Researchers are also monitoring the amount of snow cover in Canada.

Almost all of Canada is snow covered in winter, but its duration has been reduced by one month since the 1960s.

This is a major fresh water reservoir for release in the later season. Society could not build enough reservoirs to replace the amount of water snow holds in the winter months.

“Cold provides this valuable service for free,” Sandford said.

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