Alberta faces water shortages without stronger laws, report warns

By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal October 3, 2012

EDMONTON – The provincial government must pass water laws that put people and rivers first, or else risk water shortages, huge public costs and environmental degradation, a new report says.

One week after the Redford government announced provincewide consultations on the future of water management in Alberta, the watershed protection group Water Matters released an 18-page report urging the province to prioritize long-term protection of river health.

The groups points to policies adopted in Oregon, which promote conservation while respecting the rights of senior water licence holders.

“Alberta needs laws and policies that clearly lay out not only the government’s social and economic goals, but also the government’s responsibilities and obligations to protect river health,” the report says.

Author Bill Donahue of Water Matters says that “without rivers that are healthy, everything else falls apart.

“Alberta has really laid the foundation for pretty risky scenarios that could ultimately result in huge public costs,” Donahue said, noting the Australian government introduced policies similar to those in Alberta and ended up budgeting $8.9 billion to buy back water from licence holders to keep rivers flowing during a severe drought.

“If we wait until one of these really bad droughts hits Alberta, then all bets are off the table,” he said.

Henning Bjornlund is the Canada Research Chair in Water Policy and Management at the University of Lethbridge. He agreed with Donahue and said “the real problem is that we have overcommitted the water” in some Alberta water basins.

“The fear is that if you really start to use all of what you’re entitled to use, then we would have a real problem,” Bjornlund said.

“That’s why it is important to do something now. Because every time we see a new development, or processor, or subdivision, that water is being used. When someone is already depending on water, then it is significantly more difficult, costly and politically volatile to do something about it.”

The freedom to transfer water rights was first introduced in 1999, when the province passed the Water Act. The market didn’t heat up until 2006, after the province stopped granting new licences for the South Saskatchewan River Basin, and people who needed water were forced to start buying water rights from existing licence holders.

Since 2003, roughly 80 water licences have been transferred, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development spokesman Wayne Wood said.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership race in 2011, Premier Alison Redford said the government has been “dancing around the (water management) issue for six years” and has implemented a “piecemeal” approach.

She said at the time she is open to using water markets where necessary and that she would set up an expert panel to spell out the options.

“Albertans need to have policy options put before them,” Redford said. “That is going to take some intense, sophisticated discussion.”

Public consultations on the future of water management in Alberta are slated to begin in the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2013.

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