Alberta, tired of drought, begins talks to share water with large users

EDMONTON – Lance Colby saw what was coming.

The Alberta government said Wednesday it would begin talks on water sharing among large users as the province’s drought situation worsens. But Colby, chair of the Mountain View Regional Water Services Commission in central Alberta, had already started those discussions.

“We’re trying to get ahead of it,” said Colby, whose group operates a treatment plant on the Red Deer River. “We’re trying to figure out where the water goes, who the big users are and who buys water.

“It is a lot of work.”

That work will be carried out across Alberta as the province faces a slow desiccation. Alberta relies heavily on rainfall for its water supply, but Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says the entire province is in at least a moderate drought, with large areas of the south in extreme and exceptionally dry conditions.

There are currently 51 water shortage warnings in the province. River basins from north to south face critical water shortages due to low rainfall.

The Oldman River in the south has been reduced to about a third of its normal flow. The Bow, which runs through Calgary, has half its normal water. Even the tributaries of the Peace and Athabasca rivers, those mighty northern arteries, are well below their averages.

“Alberta is considering a wide range of tools and approaches to respond to an emergency situation, including both regulatory and non-regulatory tools,” said a letter from Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz to municipal leaders this week.

Schulz said the province’s newly formed drought team will bring together major water users to negotiate agreements on how to share the resource. He said licensees will be asked to voluntarily use less water to ensure water is available to as many as possible.

There are currently 51 water shortage warnings in the province. River basins from north to south face critical water shortages due to low rainfall. #Alberta #Drought #Climate Crisis

It will be the first effort of its kind in Alberta since 2001.

“The drought command team will select and prioritize negotiations with Alberta’s largest water licensees in an effort to secure significant and timely reductions in water use,” Schulz wrote.

The Alberta Energy Regulator warned the industry in December that it may have to plan to reduce its water use.

Agriculture and irrigation are by far the largest users of water in the province, accounting for almost half of its water licenses, mainly in the south where water shortages are most severe. Municipalities and the energy industry, the next largest users, use about a quarter of that amount.

Schulz blames the drought on El Niño, a periodic system associated with a hot, dry climate.

“It is causing less snow and rain, along with higher temperatures, increasing the potential for significant drought into the spring and summer of 2024, particularly in southern Alberta,” he wrote.

Your letter does not mention climate change. But last summer, a group of scientists in his department published research that warned of hot, dry times to come.

“More extreme drought conditions were projected in Alberta under (global mean temperature) warming, indicating that extreme drought conditions are likely to become more common in Alberta,” says the paper, published in the Journal of Hydrology.

Additionally, a nonprofit group of scientists and science journalists based in Princeton, New Jersey, concluded last month that climate change had made Canada’s warmest December in more than 50 years about twice as likely.

Back in Mountain View, just north of Calgary, Colby said all the communities served by his commission agree on the need to conserve water.

“We had a great meeting and all the cities are on board with what we can do,” he said. “The water we produce at the plant is for human use, for the towns.”

Still, Mountain View didn’t always have to worry about water.

“There used to be a lot of water just south of us,” he said. “It’s gone down over the years, especially last year.

“A lot of snow in the mountains and a lot of rain would make everyone very happy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.

Leave a Comment