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Water Today Title December 11, 2017

ALBERTA ON COLLISION COURSE WITH WATER CRISIS MANAGEMENT



Interview with Dr.Bill Donahue
Director of Policy and Science, Water Matters - 10/9/12

Related Info
Allocating our Water - Water Matters
Maintaining Healthy Ecosystems - Water Matters
Moving Waters - Water Matters
Responding to Water Scarcity in Western Canada - David R Percy, University of Alberta

Although Alberta may seem to have a abundant water resources, 80% of Albertans live in the south, which contains only 20% of Alberta's water supply. The province has the fastest growing population and economy in Canada. Two of its largest economic engines, farming and oil sands development, depend on long-term sustainable water supplies. And climate change is already taking its toll on the provinces river systems.

According to reports recently published by Alberta's Water Matters, a Society founded in 2007 by citizens concerned about watershed protection in Alberta, the situation is quickly deteriorating and demands action.

In fact, unless Alberta's government takes the lead in implementing a water management plan based on science-based Instream Flow Needs (IFNs) evaluations of its rivers, integrates it land-use and water policies and planning, revises its antiquated system of water licences and clearly defines regulations surrounding transfers of water rights, it will face an irreversible degredation of its rivers,lakes and connected groundwater, and severe water shortages. Rather than follow in the steps of Australia who recently had to spend billions to buy back water rights to restore the health of its rivers, Alberta should manage its water sustainably now.

The Water Today spoke with Dr. Bill Donahue, Water Matters Director of Policy and Science on Friday, October 5, 2012.


Water Today
What are IFNs?

Bill Donahue
IFNS or "Instream Flows Needs" is a science-based evaluation of the quantity, timing and quality of water flows you need to sustain water quality, riparian wetlands or forests, and fish populations in any given river.

Water Today
Has Alberta done IFN evaluations of any of its river?

Bill Donahue
Alberta has done an assessment of IFNs, in the South Saskatchewan River. They determined that approximately 75% of natural flows must remain in the river to sustain the instream physical, chemical, biological and hydrological processes at levels needed to sustain long-term river health, and health of the riparian areas bordering the rivers. However, that scientific assessment has been ignored in water management policies, regulations, and plans, in which 45% of natural flows has been arbitrarily selected as the amount of water needed to maintain ecological health. Of course, 45% of natural flows will not achieve the stated goals of the Water Act or the Water For Life program.

Water Today
Has any other province evaluated the IFNs of their rivers?

Bill Donahue
Not that I know of, nowhere in Canada

Water Today
What about the Northern River Basin Study of 1986?

Bill Donahue
It mostly examined the relationships between industrial, agricultural, municipal and other development, it did not specifically address Instream Flow Needs

Water Today
You propose engaging expert scientists in the development of scientific environmental assessment and monitoring programs to evaluate IFNs. This is costly, who pays?

Bill Donahue
The government has to take the lead.

Water Today
Will it? It seems that billions are spent for oil needs, but there is rarely enough money for water needs?

Bill Donahue
Water just seems to be this thing that's all around us. It has no value, and the cost of losing access to it is rarely factored in.

Water Today
You promote the integration of land-use and watershed management. What is land-use?

Bill Donahue
Any change to the natural landscape such as converting farmland around a city to roads, developments and such.

Water Today
Water Matters supported Alberta's Land-use Framework (LUF) does it not integrate watershed Management?

Bill Donahue
We support Alberta's Land-use Framework (LUF) as a means to manage the cumulative effects of development and landscape change in watersheds, but the fact remains that LUFs regional plans have yet to establish thresholds and apply limits to the scale and breadth of landscape uses, and to ensure acceptable limits on chemical loadings to streams and rivers via runoff. If this is not done, it is impossible to establish clear linkages between the LUF and the Water for Life Strategy.

Water Today
Tell me about Water Licences

Bill Donahue
As in other prairie provinces and western states, Alberta's water rights management system is founded on the concept of "prior allocation," also known as "First In Time, First In Right" (FIT-FIR). FIT-FIR was first entrenched in the North West Irrigation Act of 1894, which was enacted to encourage the settlement of Alberta via the promotion of irrigated agriculture in southeastern Alberta. So in essence, senior licencees now control a disporportionate amount of water rights, and as water resources diminish, this leads to conflict among water users and inevitable ecological degradation. Most senior licencees don't use the full water allocation provided under their licence. For example Calgary only uses 50% of its water allocation in wet years.

Water Today
Who are senior water licencees?

Bill Donahue
Major irrigation districts, major municipalities and industry. For example, Suncor and Syncrude applied for and were granted licences in tghe 1960s, presumably for a small licencing fee, just as someone can do today on many rivers in Alberta.

Water Today
What about Epcor ? They're in the business of treating water for several communities in Alberta, The more they treat the better it is.

Bill Donahue
This why we think that vital resources such as water should not be managed by the private sector.

Water Today
Alberta's Water Act of 1999 permits transfers of water rights and the recovery of portions of transferred allocations to the environment. Why is it not a valuable basis for a sustainable Water market in Alberta?

Bill Donahue
The problem with the Water Act as it stands it that it is not based on clearly defined process and regulations. Therefore, it comes down to ministerial discretion everywhere. Most of the transfers are based on economics, the best use being the most valuable use. This leaves the senior licencees prioritizing which development go ahead irregardless of the ecological consequences.


Water Today
According to your consultations with senior licencees, most if not all were concerned with the health of the province's lakes and rivers, what is the problem then?

Bill Donahue
Senior water licencees all were concenred about river health, but it wasn't their primary concern. For example, municipalities are primarily interested in providing their citizens with safe and reliable supplies of drinking water, and irrigation districts focus on supplying sufficient water to its farmers for irrigation agriculture. Universally, senior licences felt it is the responsibility of the government of Alberta to protect our rivers, and have failed to do so. For example, it was a common refrain that Alberta waited too long before it stopped issuing new water licences in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, making the problem of overallocation worse and the pressures on the rivers greater.

Water Today
But, according to your report they also don't trust the government

Bill Donahue
Many senior licences are willing to consider strategies that involve a transfer or cancellation of senior water rights to enhance river health and protection, but do not trust the government of Alberta to not simply reallocate those water rights to someone else for some new use. They also do not trust the government not to start taking water rights from them to distribute to others for new uses, and will most likely pursue every legal avenue to prevent that.

Water Today
You mention that changes to water allocation systems in Australia and Texas were only enacted when they were faced with severe water scarcity and the ecological degradation of their watersheds. Will it take such a crisis for Alberta to act?

Bill Donahue
Crisis management is what we are trying to avoid. The cost of managing our watersheds now is less than it will be if we reach a crisis point.

Water Today
Premier Redford has announced extensive provincewide consultations on the future of water management in Alberta. Are you hopeful?

Bill Donahue
Consultations are essentially ineffective unless they are based on a solid assessment of the costs and benefits associated with either sacrificing or protecting the ecology of our watersheds. We'll see. Transparency is key.


All Rights Reserved - 2012 - Water Today Inc.

Brief History of Water Allocation in the Prairies

As European agricultural settlement pushed westwards into the arid regions of the Canadian plains, the need to provide a secure legal basis for irrigated farming quickly became apparent. This led to the passage of the North-West Irrigation Act of 1894 which governed water use across the vast area that now comprises the Prairie Provinces.

The Irrigation Act is based on four fundamental principles:
1. Government Ownership: the Crown owns all water within the jurisdiction, in Alberta, this includes groundwater since 1962.

2. Water allocations by licence: A person who wishes to use water in excess of the amount exempted under the Act for basic domestic and agricultural needs, or for non-exempt purposes, must first obtain a licence to divert and use water. When the licence is granted, the licensee obtains the right to divert and use the quantity of water stipulated in the licence, and historically this right is passed to the licensee's successors.

3. The prior allocation Priciple: this entitled senior licensees to receive the entire allotment of water stipulated in the licence before a junior licensee is entitled to receive any water. This "First In Time, First In Right,?or “FIT-FIR?principle essentially gives senior water licensees a disproportionate amount of the water rights in Alberta.

4. Nontransferability : allocations of water granted under a licence were and still are essentially nontransferable, a fact that was made express in Alberta's Water Resources Act of 1930.

But it soon became apparent that the policy of giving out secure long-term water licences and prohibiting their transfer would eventually exhaust the available water supplies on the southern prairies.

In a pattern that was familiar in the American West, the role played by water law in creating shortages became the subject of examination only after all efforts at augmenting the natural supply of water, through dams and reservoirs, had been exhausted. In Canada, it became apparent only in the last two decades that the basic model of prairie water law had never been designed to deal with water scarcity.

Source:Responding to Water Scarcity in Western Canada, David R Percy, Borden Ladner Gervais, Chair of Energy Law and Policy, Faculty of Law, University of Alberta








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