Alberta entering a new era of allocating water

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Whether agriculture can maintain its share of water resources in southern Alberta is something producers and irrigation managers will have to deal with in the future, says Roger Hohm, section lead of irrigation for Alberta Agriculture. Hohm told the Water, Agriculture and the Environment conference in Lethbridge last November that from 1900 to 2000, water management in Alberta remained unchanged. “We assumed there would be lots of water and if we wanted a license we just went out and got one,” he said, noting that during that time any water shortages were relatively short-lived.

The 21st century, however, brought significant changes. In 1999, the Alberta government introduced the Water Act and the Water For Life strategy. Shortly after, Alberta entered a period of economic boom for five to 10 years, putting more pressure on water resources.

“Competition for water is growing, there’s increased pressure on quantity and quality of

water, and population growth is estimated at 3 per cent per year,” said Holm, highlighting the need for water management planning.

The South Saskatchewan Review in the early 2000s recognized that demand for water could outstrip supply. It was the first time a report recommended closing a basin, says Holm. As a result, new water users are now required to buy a license from an existing water user.

Maintaining share

Climate change, says Holm, is the big unknown for domestic, industrial and agricultural water users. Agriculture will have both opportunities (longer growing seasons, higher heat units, more precipitation) and risks (higher water consumption, less snow and less runoff) in a changing climate. In order to maintain its share, agriculture will need to convince the world of its value to society. “Simply saying, ‘we’re good stewards, we’re feeding you’ might not be enough,” Holm said.

By responding to the growing global populat ion and related food supply challenge, agriculture can reinforce its role as a valuable food producer and water user. Alberta, being well situated for increased agricultural production, has two options, says Holm. “Do we protect what we have or do we support the world’s needs?”

He says that while the 100-mile diet is one way to support local producers, it would more likely benefit only a small number. Most of Alberta’s producers would still need to export.

According to United Nations predictions for 2025, the world’s population will increase by 2.2 billion, an increase in affluence will result in diet changes, grain consumption will double and meat consumption will triple. Obviously, these changes will also put pressure on water resources. Other issues and challenges include policy changes and competition for water with the energy sector. Holm says that public policy is changing from basin-based allocations to use-based ones.

Furthermore, the energy sector in Alberta continues to expand and drive the provincial economy. “From what we’ve seen with existing and proposed energy projects, energy trumps agriculture in political and public perception,” says Holm.

But there will be some win-win situations, he adds, noting a coal gasification project in the east central region where agricultural producers are able to negotiation up-front to ensure sustainable water resources.

Historically, agriculture has had an “entitlement attitude” when it comes to water allocations, says Holm. In the future, it will need to be prepared to ensure water is available for people, livestock and the environment. As water management planning continues in Alberta, Holm says an integrated multi-use system will be the next step forward.

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