Balancing The Water Demands Of Agriculture And Cities

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“You could double the demand from all other users and it would not be a huge amount of water.”

Water licence reallocation is not likely to be a major issue in irrigation-rich southern Alberta, says the head of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association (AIPA).

Richard Phillips of Vauxhall, general manager of the Bow River Irrigation District, welcomed the release of three major river water allocation studies, but feels there is room for those wanting more water.

The Alberta Water Research Institute, an Edmonton-based research organization headed by former Alberta cabinet minister Lorne Taylor of Medicine Hat, hit on a sensitive area – municipal water demands and the licences held by what some call the big players like Calgary. The institute study looks at improving water allocation measures that would encourage municipal water licences to be shared, altered or “rightsized.”

David Hill of Edmonton, former executive director of AIPA in Lethbridge, said the institute earlier this year brought in specialists from Australia, the European Union, the western United States and across Canada to gain a global perspective on water allocation. It boiled down to discussion of the value of a water market which would allow economics and need dictate water reallocation, or finding more efficient ways to use the Alberta water licence format. He said the key to making water sustainable into the future is not for those holding licences to protect those licences, but that all work co-operatively to build the future all want for Alberta.

Wolf Keller, Calgary’s director of water resources, says the city has spent heavily to upgrade water infrastructure to conserve water and maintain a cushion of supply as the city grows. But it is also ready to share licensed capacity. In fact, a Calgary city official outlined to an AIPA meeting a couple of years ago a major co-operative study to bring many municipalities surrounding Calgary into a massive water sharing program, perhaps working out water supply-demand issues cooperatively.


Keller suggested that with southern Alberta’s 13 organized irrigation districts on about one million acres, and private irrigators with another 250,000 acres, farmers are the biggest water users in the province, and, in the case of districts, it is the districts which hold major water licences. “We really think the municipalities are not the right focus here,” he said.

Philips said irrigators are doing their share in conserving water. Many irrigation districts have reduced their flow from the river systems, or held it steady, the last few years. And some irrigation districts have amended their water licences to allow them to help others with increased water demands. For instance, the Taber Irrigation District makes 8,000 acre-feet of water a year available for non-irrigation uses. The Town of Taber has more water to expand business and industry, and most agree a proposed ethanol plant for the Purple Springs area would never have got off the drawing board without that kind of water source.

Phillips wonders if the water allocation studies are as pertinent as some think. Water licences or portions could be transferred since 1999, but only 28 transactions have been made, and most of them since the river basins in southern Alberta were closed to new water licences because of supply issues a few years ago. Prior to the transfer clause, there was really no need for reallocation. If a person or company wanted water, all they had to do was apply. He said irrigation and municipal markets hold the cards for most of Alberta’s water. “You could double the demand from all other users and it would not be a huge amount of water.”

An Alberta Water Council report, prepared by a committee chaired by Jim Webber of Strathmore, general manager of the Western Irrigation District, says a better system is needed for dealing with unused water allocations. It proposes a five-year amnesty period to allow licence holders to either sell unused water allocations or lose them.

The council feels better use of unused water allocations will increase prosperity in Alberta.

The environmental and conservation members of Webber’s committee did not agree with that recommendation. Hill said the institute is convinced Albertans must become aware that water must be found for all Albertans, and water use must be planned for the environment and the aquatic system. Having a healthy nature, environment and aquatic system is what gives Albertans their quality of life, said Hill.

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