The UCP presents Bill 21 that would expand the powers of the province during emergencies

Bill 21 will allow the Alberta government to override the powers of local authorities when necessary

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The Alberta government is seeking to expand its powers during emergencies such as wildfires, floods and droughts in a bill introduced Thursday.

Bill 21, called the Emergency Statutes Amendment Act 2024, will give the Alberta government greater ability to override the powers of local authorities “in situations where additional provincial oversight and support is required” and will change the way Alberta manages water in extreme situations.

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“There are some things that have become so obvious because you’ve gone over them over and over again; everyone has come to the same conclusion that we can’t sit back and wait for a fire to jump the border,” the Alberta premier said. Danielle Smith said at a press conference Thursday.

Local authorities will be required to provide more information to the government during local emergencies, and the province will be able to more easily intervene when large wildfires cross multiple jurisdictions, which will be achieved through changes to the Forest and Grassland Protection Act.

The bill includes changes to the Water Law. During water emergencies, the province could now take steps including allowing “temporary low-risk water transfers between major watersheds.” Alberta will also be able to determine who has priority in water use in an emergency area and order water licensees to change if, when and how they can divert water.

The province said these measures would only be taken as a “last resort.”

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Alberta is also proposing that the provincial election be permanently rescheduled for October instead of late May to avoid the likelihood of the government having to respond to an emergency during an election. That scenario played out last May when Alberta declared a state of emergency during the hotly contested provincial election.

The move would align Alberta’s election dates with those of several Canadian provinces and municipalities that have traditionally held their elections in the fall, Smith said.

The bill would need royal assent to come into force. It is unclear how long it would take and whether the changes would be implemented for this year’s wildfire season.

‘These are the kind of decisions that need to be made quickly’: Smith

The changes will have the greatest impact on rural municipalities that don’t have the infrastructure to respond to major emergencies, Smith said.

Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray’s emergency response teams are so sophisticated they probably wouldn’t need provincial assistance. But small villages and towns tend to be more at risk, she said, and can be expensive.

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“We have no interest in engaging in firefighting in areas that are completely under control and that are within the limits and boundaries of an individual municipality,” he said. “As soon as it threatens to cross a border… we have to be prepared to intervene. These are the kinds of decisions that have to be made quickly.”

Smith said he can’t foresee a situation where the province’s new powers would be abused, but he didn’t cite specific guardrails that would prevent such a scenario.

Danielle Smith
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said the changes would have the greatest impact on rural municipalities that don’t have the infrastructure to respond to major emergencies. Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Water transfers would only occur in extreme circumstances, says the Minister of the Environment

The new changes to the Water Law would be used, for example, to provide drinking water to communities where it is scarce, which, according to Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz, would be a transfer between low-risk basins. She said such transfers have occurred six times in the past and required a special decision by the legislature.

The most recent interbasin transfer occurred in 2020, when the province authorized the transfer of water from the North Saskatchewan River Basin to the Athabasca River Basin, providing treated water to communities in Parkland County and Lac Ste. Ana.

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Schulz said the new legislation would be used in a Stage Five emergency, which has never happened in the province’s history.

“We certainly hope we don’t have to go there,” Schulz said, adding that the province’s new water-sharing agreements are expected to lessen the need for such a measure.

Large-scale transfers would require much broader consultation to ensure that any major transfers are done fairly, Schulz said. He added that this is an ongoing conversation among Alberta’s water advisory panel, established in February to help manage the current drought.

old river
The Oldman River runs through decades of sediment at the Oldman Dam Reservoir north of Cowley, Ab., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Rural townships have been calling for change, says PM

Smith said municipalities have been requesting these changes, although the province did not undertake a formal consultation process.

Smith cited a late 2023 resolution from the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) that promised to collaborate with the province on a long-term strategy to combat wildfires outside of forest protection areas. Rural municipalities have said the province has been slow to respond to out-of-control wildfires.

A recent RMA Briefing He also said that the municipalities wanted “more effective communication between the province and the municipalities.”

Many local governments have opposed recently introduced legislation that would give Alberta control over federal funding agreements and greater authority to intervene in municipal affairs. The province was criticized last week for not consulting with Alberta municipalities before implementing Bill 20.

“There are many ways to consult. We do formal consultations, in some cases we do public consultations, in some cases we hear resolutions… I would say that in this case, this is so obvious that we have to make changes,” Smith said.

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