Alberta has adequate water supplies to grow: panel

One member of a recent discussion says the environment will suffer if water use in the province expands too much

The question is apt: does Alberta have enough water to grow?

The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy put that question to a three-member panel Oct. 20. Two said the answer is yes. The third said maybe but there will be trade-offs.

Earlier this month the federal and provincial governments announced an $815 million injection into southern Alberta’s irrigation system. Converting open canals to pipelines and creating new off-stream reservoirs were the stated key targets for the funds.

That meshes perfectly with what Alex Ostrup, board member with the St. Mary’s River Irrigation District, said is needed to continue growth.

“We believe strongly that with continued investment and continued focus on efficiency, that we do indeed have enough water for Alberta to grow,” he said.

Between 2005 and 2015, Alberta irrigation districts used 26 percent less water on a larger number of acres, said Ostrup.

That improvement came about through farmer investment in low-pressure irrigation systems and ongoing irrigation district conversion of open canals to pipelines. Those actions contributed to a 48 percent improvement in water use efficiency in that 10-year period, said Ostrup.

The SMRID is working on projects for underground drip irrigation and using solar power for water pumping, he added.

International hydrotechnical consultant Wim Veldman provided data showing that Alberta has not used its full licence allocation of water since 1988 but has increased its irrigated area by 40 percent since 1976. The gap between licenced available water use and annual diversion has particularly widened since 2002.

Veldman said there are several key regulations in place that put limits on Alberta water use. The Alberta-Saskatchewan Apportionment Agreement, signed in 1969, ensures Alberta passes at least half of river flow to Saskatchewan.

His figures indicated that from 1970 to 2006, Alberta instead passed 81 percent to Saskatchewan.

Within the province, regulations prohibit interbasin transfer of water, such as from the typically wetter northern region to the typically drier south.

“It would be tempting if you look at where the water availability is versus where our shortages are and where our drier precipitation numbers are,” he said.

A moratorium on new water licences in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which is the heart of Alberta’s irrigation system, was issued in 2006 and remains in effect. Transfers can occur of an existing water licence to another holder, but when that happens, 10 percent of the licenced amount reverts to the province.

Veldman said he believes existing regulations provide adequate protection on water use.

Jason Unger, executive director and general counsel at the Environmental Law Centre, said any decisions on more intensive water use and storage must be viewed through the broader lens of environmental outcomes.

Water is a limited resource, he said, and there is growing pressure on in-stream flows that could increase with more irrigation and water storage demands.

“I think there’s a question around resource scarcity and increasing risks on a landscape level, on a watershed level. So it’s not just about irrigation. It’s not just about municipalities increasing sizes and that type of thing,” said Unger.

“It’s a growing pressure on in-stream flows … that might result in some impacts that we want to avoid.”

He said fishery needs in the Oldman River are often unmet, nor have in-stream and water conservation objectives.

“We need to ensure we’re monitoring and looking at the various impacts on the stream and whether those impacts are causing irreparable changes on the landscape.”

Unger said the environment is typically the first element to bear the brunt of decisions on water use.

The effects of climate change are also part of the equation and are likely to affect the number and intensity of floods and droughts .

“As a farmer down here in southern Alberta, and dry southern Alberta most of the time, when it comes to water there are two issues that concern me,” said Ostrup.

I either have too much water or I have too little water. Climate change is only going to exacerbate those two scenarios.

“The best way to address that is to really focus on … having the infrastructure in place to capture that water, store it, channel it, divert it away from vulnerable areas.”

If there’s too little water, off-stream storage will allow the limited amount to be saved and distributed when it is most needed, said Ostrup.

Unger said water use should be more closely monitored and any transfer of water licences should be public and transparent.

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