Province urged to overhaul water laws to stave off a billion-dollar crisis

DROUGHT WARNING Water Matters says a return to periodic multi-year droughts is inevitable 
but better rules could save both rivers and the public purse

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Alberta needs to revamp its water regulations before an inevitable long-term drought pushes the current water allocation system into crisis, according to the Water Matters Society of Alberta.

“We need to ensure water is available for all the competing demands on our rivers — but in Alberta, nobody is responsible for the health of the aquatic ecosystems,” said Bill Donahue, science director for the society, which was founded to provide expert and independent advice to government and the public on watershed management.

“We’re approaching the limits of the water our rivers can supply. It’s time to stop avoiding the difficult decisions.”

In a recently released report, the watershed protection group offers a number of options for improving management and allocation of water in Alberta.

The goal, said Donahue, is to avoid what happened in Australia, where a simple cash-for-rights water market (like Alberta’s) created to protect river health instead intensified overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin. When drought virtually dried up the river, the Australian government was forced to enter the water market and buy licences at a cost of $8.9 billion.

“The Alberta government paid out $2.2 billion in drought relief in 2000-02,” said Donahue. “If we don’t plan for the worst-case scenarios, we’ll pay billions and billions.”

And such a scenario may not be far off, he warned.

Tree ring studies show 10-year droughts have occurred about every 50 years in southern Alberta. But current regulations were developed during the wettest period in the last 1,000 years and that has led to water in the South Saskatchewan River Basin being overallocated. Sooner or later, long-term drought will return and river flows are likely to be too low for healthy ecosystems.

That’s why a reworking of the province’s water laws, including changing water licences, is needed now, said Donahue.

“If the goals of Alberta’s water policy were clearly stated, we could use infrastructure more efficiently,” he said. “If reservoirs are primarily for irrigation, we could be more flexible in filling reservoirs, be able to take more advantage of high-flow events, store more of higher spring flows. Some reservoirs might need to be built up. At others, cottagers might lose their beach for part of the year. Clear objectives and purpose would clarify the expectations of each user group.”

Gentlemen’s agreements

During a century of irrigation in Alberta, water managers have worked together to accommodate the needs of all water users, but these sorts of “gentlemen’s agreements among stakeholders” won’t be enough to deal with a severe crisis, said Donahue.

“It’s time the Alberta government accepted its responsibility for water management, identified its goals, and made long-term plans and monitored progress towards those goals, including being prepared to modify plans if we’re not making progress,” he said.

An alternative to the Australian experience can be found in Oregon, he said.

There, 25 per cent of any savings in water use revert to the state to enhance and sustain river health. If public funding is used in gaining water efficiency, water savings revert to the river in proportion to public spending on the project. Returning water savings to the river for aquatic health is guaranteed under law.

Irrigators would not lose out under this type of change, said Donahue. He said owners of water rights might lease them to a water trust, a charity or non-profit that holds water rights for the environmental health of a river, possibly working with various groups to improve river health.

“A water licence holder or a member of an irrigation district could decide not to give up all or a portion of their rights for a year or several years,” he says. “The government could create financial or other inducements to encourage people to work with the water trust.”

A water trust can give farmers more flexibility and help them be more efficient, says Donahue.

“One approach that’s worked in some places is to pay a farmer or provide hay in exchange for water rights used to grow hay on marginal areas.”

Water Matters has reviewed water management around the world and discussed options with Alberta water managers. All have expressed a willingness to work to enhance and maintain river health as long as decisions are based on science-based information and not within the control of politicians, said Donahue.

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