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Alberta announces what it says are the largest water-sharing agreements in its history

Image of dry field and a blue-grey sky. A close examination of the sky reveals the image of dry creek bed.

Alberta has concluded its negotiations with major water licence holders and is now outlining what it calls the largest water-sharing agreements in Alberta’s 118-year history.

On Friday, the province released the first details of four agreements. 

They zero in on major water users in the Red Deer River sub-basin, the Bow River sub-basin, and the mainstem and upper tributaries of the Oldman River sub-basin.

The sub-basins are a part of the larger South Saskatchewan River Basin, which flows across the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and serves the water needs of four large Alberta cities: Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

A map of the South Saskatchewan River Basin.
(CBC News)

Planned water reductions

As a part of the agreements, participating municipalities will reduce water consumption by between five and 10 per cent, compared to expected 2024 summer demands if no measures were taken. 

Those municipalities include: 

  • City of Calgary.
  • City of Lethbridge.
  • City of Medicine Hat.
  • County of Lethbridge.
  • City of Red Deer.
  • Red Deer County.
  • Town of Drumheller.
  • Town of Stettler.
  • County of Warner.

Other communities, like Airdrie, get their water under these licences, and so do not sign on directly, according to a spokesperson for Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz.

WATCH | Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz outlines water-sharing agreements: 

alberta announces what it says are the largest water sharing agreements in its history 2

Environment minister outlines water-sharing agreements

1 day ago

Duration 1:18

Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz says the voluntary agreements will see municipalities, industry and irrigation districts reduce water use.

Speaking during a news availability Friday, Nicole Newton, Calgary’s manager of natural environment and adaptation, said the city would implement a water reductions advisory, effective immediately. 

“If those agreements are enacted, we are committed to reducing our water use by five to 10 per cent,” Newton said.

“That would include potentially escalating our restrictions. But Calgarians are responding to our request to start to conserve water. We’re seeing that through our demand.”

Water restrictions will be in place at some point this summer, Newton said. A bylaw update will be brought to council in June outlining details around what the steps might look like.

A woman stands in front of a podium.
Nicole Newton, Calgary’s manager of natural environment and adaptation, said Friday that the city would implement a water reductions advisory, effective immediately, in an effort to manage water supply in the Bow and Elbow rivers. (CBC News)

It will include the introduction of a permanent and staged outdoor watering schedule to help support a transition to outdoor water restrictions, according to the city.

Risk of severe drought

Water is in high demand in Alberta’s semi-arid south. The region has endured several dry years, and El-Niño-type conditions indicate drier and warmer weather ahead. That’s led to the risk of severe drought.

The province notes that recent snowfall has helped, but winter snowpack remains below average, many rivers are lower than normal, and multiple reservoirs are below capacity. The Oldman River sub-basin remains of particular concern.

In an interview with CBC News Thursday, Schulz said the agreements will be triggered depending on reservoir levels, river flow and snowpack. Data on peak snowpack levels is expected later this month.

“This puts us in a position where we are ready to respond, if we are, in fact, in a significant drought later this year,” Schulz said.

The province believes its stated targets in the agreements can be achieved without impacting indoor water use.

The agreements also state that industrial operations and irrigation districts have agreed to reduce their water use.

Participating irrigation districts will use less water and allow others to get their water first, then use the remaining water available for licensed use, the province said.

WATCH | Alberta irrigators told they’ll get less water this year: 

alberta announces what it says are the largest water sharing agreements in its history 4

Alberta irrigators told they’ll get less water this year

11 days ago

Duration 5:31

The St. Mary River Irrigation District told its annual general meeting last week that irrigators will get half what they get in a good year. It comes as drought conditions loom and as Alberta still plans to move ahead with a near $1-billion plan to expand irrigation in the province.

For other industrial users, there are agreements in place to essentially go down to the water level that’s necessary to keep operations running, according to Schulz.

The province has also reached out to smaller junior water licence holders to outline what’s in the agreements and what might be asked of them moving forward.

‘Unprecedented’ negotiations

Last December, Schulz sent a letter to municipal leaders, asking them to find ways to use less water in light of a possible drought. The province launched what it called “unprecedented” water-sharing negotiations in January and began negotiations with major water licence holders for the first time since 2001.

Those 2001 negotiations, agreed to during another period of significant drought, served as a sort of road map for this year’s talks, Schulz said. Near the start of the new millennium, voluntary sharing of water was the strategy.

“We were able to essentially prevent [Alberta] from going into an emergency situation by bringing all of the water users to the table,” Schulz said. 

“We’re seeing the same thing. They just rolled up their sleeves, absolutely willing to help.”

WATCH | Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz discusses voluntary water-sharing: 

alberta announces what it says are the largest water sharing agreements in its history 5

Why the province is taking a voluntary approach

1 day ago

Duration 1:15

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz says experiences during previous drought years have led the government to not take a “top-down” approach.

The Alberta of 2024 isn’t exactly analogous to the Alberta of 2001, with a bigger population and more demands on water allocations, Schulz said. That’s what led to the province branding this round of talks as the largest water-sharing agreements in Alberta’s history.

Why voluntary water sharing?

To understand why water sharing in the south is being approached on a voluntary basis, one needs to understand the water priority system that’s been in place in Alberta since 1894.

The use of water is governed in Alberta through the issuing of “water licences” by the provincial government. 

The Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan sub-basins have all been closed to new surface water allocations since 2006. 

The priority system dubbed ‘first in time, first in right’ grants seniority to those who had water licences first. For instance, an operation that received a licence 120 years ago would have access to water first, compared to an operation that received one 20 years ago. 

In practice, it means that licence holders must voluntarily share their water in times of drought. But that system has posed concerns given southern Alberta’s unique makeup.

“What I’ve been thinking about recently is, I think this year is going to be OK. People have made their agreements. They are voluntary, but they’ll stick to them, I’m sure,” said Evan Davies, a professor with the University of Alberta’s water resources engineering research group.

“It does make you wonder, however, what will happen in future years if the drought continues or if it worsens.”

Irrigators are, by and large, the senior water licence holders in Alberta, Davies noted. The province has the largest irrigated area in Canada, reaching about 690,000 hectares, 566,000 of which is in southern Alberta along the South Saskatchewan River Basin.

A man wearing a sweater looks at the camera.
Evan Davies, a professor with the University of Alberta’s water resources engineering research group, says researchers will be interested in the coming months to look back and reassess modelling results used by the province as drought conditions play out (Submitted by Evan Davies)

Conditions have already led some irrigation districts to scale their water allocations back significantly. Earlier this month, the St. Mary River Irrigation District, the biggest irrigation district in Canada, said farmers would get half the amount they get in a good year.

“Asking them, year after year, to take 50 per cent reductions, when legally they have the right to withdraw up to their licensed allocation, is asking them to take quite a large hit,” Davies said. 

“But it’s not clear to me what the alternative would be. There are discussions and there have been discussions in Alberta for decades now about allocating water more economically … so, I think if this turns into multiple years, we’ll probably see these kinds of discussions starting to occur.”

There are 25,000 water licence holders in Alberta, according to the province. 

First in line

When asked whether this year’s negotiations were focused on the future of the “first in time, first in right,” system or whether it was more focused on the months ahead, Schulz said the province was trying to look at both matters.

“We want to respect ‘first in time, first in right,'” Schulz said. 

“I don’t think when we’re facing potential emergency situations, that that’s the time to create additional chaos and uncertainty. We really wanted to be respectful of those older and larger water licence agreements.”

WATCH | Minister Rebecca Schulz discusses current thinking on ‘first in time, first in right’:

alberta announces what it says are the largest water sharing agreements in its history 7

Schulz on the province’s water priority system

1 day ago

Duration 1:14

Rebecca Schulz, environment minister, discusses whether this year’s negotiations touched on the future of the “first in time, first in right” system.

At the same time, the negotiations have brought forward some lessons, according to Schulz. Moving water allocations online has painted a clearer picture.

“Who has these allocations? Are they being used? Are we encouraging water conservation? Are there ways that we could do better?” Schulz said. 

“We know that as our population grows, as our industry grows to create jobs for those people that are choosing to call Alberta home, we need to make sure that we’re maximizing our water allocation.”

That means encouraging conservation, examining storage options and expanding groundwater monitoring, among other measures, Schulz said.

For Davies, it appears as though the province has engaged in significant negotiations with major water licence holders. 

“Overall, the process has been done quite well … I just would urge them to consider this in a pessimistic frame of mind, as well as an optimistic frame of mind. What is the worst-case scenario we could be looking at?” Davies said.

“This is a political process, rather than a scientific exercise. So, when we look back at things, I’m sure we’ll be able to find that there would have been better ways to do things. But that doesn’t mean that at the time the decisions were made, we have those options open to us.”

Some weren’t convinced by the government’s approach to water-sharing.

In a release sent to media on Friday afternoon, the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) said the response plan prioritized industry and irrigation over the environment. The AWA called on the government to declare a Stage Five emergency under the provincial Water Act. Stage Five is the highest stage listed.

“We need to stop treating water as a commodity that exists solely for human consumption, otherwise, there won’t be enough water left over for the ecosystems that sustain us,” said Phillip Meintzer, conservation specialist with the AWA, in a release.

According to the province, the agreements concern 37 of the largest and oldest water licencees in southern Alberta, representing up to 90 per cent of the water allocated in the Bow and Oldman basins and 70 per cent in the Red Deer River basin.

The agreements are intended to adjust in real-time as conditions change. The actual water amounts under the agreements will be updated every two weeks based on latest supply forecasts, according to the province. 

The province said it will actively implement the agreements over the coming months by monitoring conditions, producing water supply forecasts, and optimizing reservoir operations, among other measures.

This story is part of CBC Calgary’s ongoing series, When In Drought, which explores Alberta’s drought conditions — and how best to handle them. You can find the other stories here.

This article is from from (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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