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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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Advisory of the Day



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Southern Alberta has experienced long periods of heat and little rain this summer. Early last month Environment Canada issued a heat warning for this region. This has put stress on municipal water supplies and has prompted a number of communities south of Calgary to curtail how residents use the vital resource.

Four towns not far from Calgary, and less than an hour's drive apart, have put in place water restrictions due to low water levels. The towns of Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Okotoks, and High River are under Level 3 Water Restrictions. In the case of Turner Valley, the notice for the emergency measures asks residents to flush "toilets only as required."

Barry Williamson, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for Turner Valley, explained that "the Town is a member if a water corporation," along with Black Diamond and the Foothills Municipal District. About the current situation in Turner Valley Williamson said, "temperature is a factor, as is the river level, but these are not the only factors."

Water issues in the area date back a few years. Williamson said that "both Turner Valley and Black Diamond have been recovering from the Flood of 2013 whereby, all of the water wells were washed out [as well as] the water treatment plant in Black Diamond." He added "we have recovered most of the infrastructure; however, we have a further direct intake project to get raw water levels back to the original supply prior to the flood.

As a result, the Town has "been at a Level 2 restriction," pending the intake work. Recent conditions have pushed the restriction level up. Both Turner Valley and Black Diamond were at Level 3 for 18 months after the flood.

Sarah Kilby, who lives 3km outside of town and owns a Bed and Breakfast, said that "they are on a private well and are not really affected by the restrictions, [though] they still try to conserve water."

Janice MacIndoe, who lives in town said she isn't really affected other than "watering the garden less."

One of the other Towns on Level 3 Restrictions is Okotoks. Their situation is different they are supplied by 13 wells that are filled by surface water. Okotoks boasts on its website that its water "meets or exceeds current federal and provincial regulatory standards." Okotoks owns its water and wastewater systems, though they were designed, built, and not to mention are operated and maintained by EPCOR Utilities Inc.

EPCOR has one sole shareholder the City of Edmonton, to which the commercial entity paid a $146 million dividend this year. The utility provides water and wastewater services to 85 communities in Western Canada. EPCOR also operates private systems in three American States through its subsidiary EPCOR Water (USA) Inc.

We spoke with Elaine Vincent, the CAO of Okotoks. She said that the current water restrictions are "simply in relation to supply and demand on the Sheep River." During the period of extreme heat last month, the Town was "withdrawing 16 thousand cubic metres [a day] from the river and reservoirs." At that point the Town was only capable of producing 11 thousand cubic metres daily.

Vincent explained that the water ban was initiated to ensure "the safety of residents as our reservoirs must have a minimum balance [for] fire protection." Since the restrictions have been put in place "water consumption has dropped to 7500 cubic metres a day."

To understand the science behind why these towns are lacking water we spoke with Monireh Faramarzi PhD, Assistant Professor Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP) and Chair in Watershed Science. She said that "uncertainty based assessments of freshwater scarcity at the watershed scale reveals that Alberta suffers from a permanent 'blue' water stress in certain months of the year." Faramarzi added that a "high resolution hydrology model of [the province] shows the Oldman, Bow, and Milk river basins experience severe water stress during July and August."

The high water demand in the summer months can soar to "40% more than [the] availability," Faramarzi said. During these months "agriculture is the largest consumer causing water stress." During the winter water stress is brought on by industry and municipal projects.

Alberta's water woes have been known for some time and some may be systemic. A 2008 report from Eco-Justice and Bow Riverkeeper entitled Fight to the Last Drop pointed the trend of "Irrigation Districts seeking and obtaining licence amendments to operate as water brokers." Registered farms would receive water for its use from Irrigation Districts, these same entities sought "the authority to provide water to any person for virtually any purpose at whatever price they deem appropriate."

The provincial means of distributing water restrict access to it and stifle municipal growth. The Town of Okotoks has had other water issues other than those related to the recent heat. The Town ran into issues with the Water Licence Transfers.

Elaine Vincent Town CAO explained that "Water Transfers are critical component to the Town's water strategy as they provide for the growth of [Okotoks] in the absence of a water line to Calgary." The Town "has a policy that states that land use designation cannot occur until such time as enough water transferred," to supply the area.

The province put the Town's Water Licence Transfers on hold earlier this year "pending new impact modeling for the Sheep River." The new models have since been submitted and accepted by Alberta Environment and Parks and "in July four Water Transfers," were made to the Town. More are expected later this year.

Consumption of Alberta's freshwater greatly exceeds the supply in the summer months. This habit causes communities in the southern parts of the province to live with water scarcity in the July and August. Water scarcity has become an annual problem in the province.

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