A provincial proposal to promote open-pit coal mining by helping such projects get water from the Oldman River basin is a step in the wrong direction for Alberta, said a legal expert.
Such mines risk exposing irrigated farms in southern Alberta to pollutants such as selenium, said professor Nigel Bankes, Chair of Natural Resources Law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary.
They also risk further harming the province’s reputation, he said.
“We have a global image problem associated with carbon and it doesn’t make sense to me to be allowing international coal companies to come and extract more coal from this province.”
But the proposal will help support Alberta’s economic recovery plan, Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said in an e-mail.
It will make “water resources in an underused area available for all potential uses, while also ensuring irrigators, namely farmers and ranchers, have access to the water they need and maintaining a healthy aquatic environment, including considerations for the province’s native trout species…,” she said.
The provincial government wants to change a water allocation order that primarily reserves 11,000 acre feet of water upstream of the Oldman Reservoir for irrigation. It includes the Oldman, Castle and/or Crowsnest rivers, said a statement by the Oldman Watershed Council.
Alberta earlier announced it was separately rescinding a 44-year-old provincial policy that limited surface coal mining on much of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Several ranchers and First Nations opposed to that move have asked for judicial reviews of the coal policy decision. The request of the ranchers, whose operations are near Nanton, Alta., is to be heard Jan. 19-20 by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary.
“Most of the mines are still in the exploration phase and have not applied for a water licence yet,” said the Oldman Watershed Council.
An acre foot is 1,233.5 cubic metres of water.
Only 150-acre feet are currently allowed for industrial purposes compared to 9,350 for irrigation, said the statement. But of the latter limit, only 1,295 acre feet has been licensed or applied for by irrigators over the years, it said.
As a result, the provincial government wants to set one overall limit for all sectors upstream of the Oldman reservoir, the council said.
“The total limit of 11,000 acre feet would still apply, but the majority of it would no longer be set aside for irrigation.”
The limits set by the current allocation order, which were established in 2003, “have created barriers to economic development,” it said.
“It is expected that if federal and provincial regulators approve the coal mines being proposed along the eastern slopes of the Oldman watershed, and the proposed changes are made to the order, that coal companies would apply for at least half of the total allocation that is available.”
But Bankes said the rest of the Oldman River basin is closed to new allocations to help ensure water conservation, meaning no new water licences are being issued.
The provincial proposal “is a way of providing basically new water rights for free, so to that degree, it kind of disrupts that market that we have created in the basin overall, which recognises the value of water as a scarce resource,” he said.
The impact of the proposal in terms of water availability downstream of the Oldman reservoir “should be negligible because the amount of water is small by comparison,” said the statement by the Oldman Watershed Council. “However, in dry years, every drop counts.”
The provincial government is considering setting aside 2,200 acre feet, or 20 percent of the total limit upstream of the reservoir, to maintain environmental flows, it said. It is unclear if this would be enough in terms of the impact on things such as water quality and fish habitats, the council said.
Studies have not yet been made of the inflow stream needs of the Castle, Crowsnest, Livingstone or upper Oldman rivers and their tributaries, it said.
“We do know that smaller streams are more sensitive and vulnerable, so it is critical that in-stream flow needs assessments are completed, and that streams where withdrawals are made are monitored.”
The council will examine concerns about potential pollutants such as selenium, said executive director Shannon Frank. Just west of Alberta, Teck Resources Ltd. in B.C.’s Elk Valley has spent hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with the problem at its coal mining operations, she said.
“And so there’s a lot of processing, like water treatment and filtering that needs to be done to get rid of it, and the challenge has been that it’s not as easy as it sounds. We don’t have the kind of technology and processes that are proven to remove it.”
Fish populations have substantially declined downstream in B.C., said Frank, adding “humans can be impacted at a higher concentration (of selenium), and crops can be impacted as well, so it just depends on that concentration … that’s why dilution is so important, and why water quality and quantity are so interconnected.”
However, Sinclair said the “continued safety of our critical water systems is the priority of this government. Users with older allocations — First Nations, irrigators and municipalities to name a few groups — will always have priority of access to water.”