Sixteen years is a long time in which to resolve a licence application, even by government standards.
But it was the government, specifically Alberta Environment and Parks, that told southern Alberta rancher Aaron Brower in late December that water licence applications filed by Brower Ranching Co. Ltd. in 2001 were now being reviewed and at risk of cancellation.
He isn’t the only one to receive such a notice.
The department is reviewing more than 1,000 Water Act applications in the South Saskatchewan River region, according to government spokesperson Matt Dykstra.
Brower, a fourth generation cattle rancher, was taken aback by a government letter that indicated the need for further information about several of the numerous wells and dams on his property, which he uses for the household and for livestock.
The letter said requests for information had been made but no response received so the files would be closed. Further diversion of water would be in contravention of the Water Act, the letter stated.
All of that was news to Brower, who said he never received requests for more information about his water use.
He met in early January with Jeff Gutsell of Alberta Environment to sort out the matter.
“I’m not asking for a green light on the application by any means,” Brower said he told Gutsell at that meeting.
“If there is a problem on this 16-year-old file that you guys have dusted off, we’ll address the problem, but you have to tell me what your problem and concerns are. I thought that was pretty fair.”
However, he was unable to resolve the matter with Gutsell or with other Alberta Environment officials whom he contacted later.
“This is probably going to get very loud and very ugly because nobody wants to deal with the problem,” he said in an interview Feb. 7.
“I’m not going to be quiet about it because there’s a lot of other people that could be affected by this. So as a citizen of this province, I’m going to make everything that happens here public.”
Brower has filed an appeal with the Alberta Environment Appeals Board, a legal process handled by his lawyer, Keith Wilson.
“The effect of the government’s action is to strip the Browers, and anyone else who’s received one of these letters, of their traditional agricultural user rights that many of us and livestock groups fought very hard for,” said Wilson.
“And the government’s bureaucrats, through their conduct, are defeating those protections that were put into law.”
Wilson said he can only speculate about the reasons for the government’s recent actions but suggested they are due to either “gross incompetence” or a plan to close the Milk River basin to new allocations of surface water.
“That would mean that not only would these farmers not be able to apply for lesser rights, they would be able to apply for no rights. And that’s troubling as well.
“One of the explanations as to what’s happening here is that the bureaucrats and the environmentalists in the department wanted to maximize the amount of water in the basin that they could reallocate to environmental and conservation and other goals.
“And one way to do that would be to cancel all these applications because then all the water that’s being used by those ranches and farms would then have to stay in the river. And then if they close the basin at the same time, they’ve then got a whole bunch of water that they control and farmers can’t use.
“And that is deeply troubling, if that is going on. That is deeply, deeply troubling. In fact, it’s illegal.”
However, Dykstra said in his email that the Milk River basin is not closed to surface water allocations.
“We are still accepting and processing water licence applications for small stock watering and municipal purposes,” he said.
“The department is not cancelling traditional agricultural registrations nor water licences in good standing.”
That runs contrary to information in Gutsell’s letter to Brower.
“Legislation is in process that will likely close the basin to all surface water sources, leaving true groundwater aquifer sources as potentially the only option,” the letter said.
With respect to the Browers’ case, Dykstra said the department is helping the ranch file a new and complete application.
In the meantime, temporary authority will allow the ranch to divert water needed for livestock.
Some of Brower’s 35 water licences date back to 1910 when the North West Mounted Police used the property and the water. In 2001, after the Alberta government replaced the Water Resources Act with the Water Act, it had farmers and ranchers apply to have their traditional water rights recognized and entrenched in law as permanent rights.
Now the government said it is addressing “a backlog of water licence applications, some of which are missing critical information.”
Dykstra said the department has closed a small number of water allocation applications that had insufficient information that it had tried and failed to obtain.
Brower said the department could not provide him with any proof that it had asked for more information, nor has he been able to determine exactly what the department needs.
“At the end of the day, if they decide that I don’t have a licence and I can’t use the water and I can’t divert the water coming into it to store, I’m out of business. If I don’t have water, I don’t have anything,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s going on over there, but I can tell you, I don’t have a good feeling. I know that much.”
Wilson said others who have received the government letters might not be aware that they have 30 days from receipt to respond. Brower’s letter did not contain that information.
“This is really unbelievable that the government would be putting such a complex obstacle in front of farmers and ranchers for no good reason and in a manner that reveals (government) incompetence on such an extreme scale,” said Wilson.
“It’s just bizarre that the government is comfortable with the fact that it’s taken their bureaucrats over 16 years — 16 years — to process this application.”
The Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association posted a notice to inform ranchers about the 30-day appeals period. It also expressed concern about the process and the potential reasons behind it.
“It would appear the underlying agenda is that government is trying to claw back some water allocations on the almost fully allocated Milk River by targeting rural home and agricultural use. This would represent a blatant disregard for the rights of these ranchers,” the association said.
Tim Romanow, executive director of the Milk River Watershed Council, said he’s heard from a number of ranchers in the region who are concerned about letters they’ve received regarding water licences.
“This is literally their livelihood,” he said.
“These are sources of water that they’ve used for decades or longer, and it’s a pretty difficult situation to be put into, I think.”
He said dry conditions last year put a strain on the watershed, and in general it is becoming increasingly difficult to receive approval for water projects, including on-farm dugouts.