Water Market Win-Win — For Now

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“The M.D. has the water they need for development and we have the cash.”

Selling water rights can be a win-win with buyers, sellers and the environment all gaining, according to the man behind the water sale that’s the biggest in Alberta so far.

Jim Webber is general manager of the Western Irrigation District (WID), which sold part of its water allocation to the Municipal District (M. D.) of Rockyview for urban development such as the Cross Iron Mall, better known as the Balzac Mega-mall.

“The M.D. has the water they need for development and we have the cash,” says Webber. “We’ve been able to make badly needed investments in infrastructure, replacing 50 km of ditches with 35 km of pipeline.”

The M.D. also wins, not only does it have water to supply developments, the supply is assured, because it has acquired an old water licence.

Water diversion for the WID began in 1905 and, under the first-in-time, first-in-right allocation system, its right to withdraw water will be satisfied before other users.

For irrigation farmers and the WID, the advantages of a pipeline are huge. Instead of ditches that get clogged with algae and weeds, and that leak and spill, degrading adjacent land, the pipeline system delivers all the water diverted into it. It’s also more convenient for farmers to access the water, and with no sunlight reaching the water they don’t have to filter it.

In the WID, some farmers are even able to run pivots on water pressure, cutting their energy consumption and costs considerably.

“So many of the problems that were constant have ended,” says Webber. “Weeds, algae and all sorts of things blowing into the ditches can all block ditches, especially in smaller channels. We save money, machinery and staff time spent on clearing channels and getting rid of weeds. We’re able to service our members much more efficiently.”

Savings equal sales

Installation of 35 km of underground pipeline is a major undertaking that would have taken seven or eight years if the WID had to work within its normal budget. The sale of water rights allowed the WID to complete it in two years and to engineer some improvements that have enabled it to save over 2,000 acre-feet of water – the amount it sold to the M. D. of Rockyview. So now, irrigators can use the same amount of water they’ve always used, but with more convenience. The municipality has enough water to supply developments, and the environmental needs of the river have not been compromised by the change.

Webber’s only complaint about the sale of WID’s water allocation was that the process was slow and onerous. Water rights transfers were legalized across Alberta in 1999, but only happen in the South Saskatchewan River Basin because it’s the only system where new water licences are no longer available.

The Alberta government, in its updated Water for Life strategy, has committed to making transfer of water allocations more efficient. It plans to take proposals around the province to give Albertans a chance to offer their opinions. The government will use public input to develop possible changes to regulations around transfers of water allocations.

The Alberta Water Council has representatives from municipalities, oil and gas industries, fishermen, farmers, ranchers, environmental and government groups working to produce a consensus report in time for the presentations to the public this fall.

The head of the Alberta Water Research Council, former environment minister Lorne Taylor, has expressed the opinion that the first-in-time, first-in-right system must change. Whether the public agrees or the government agrees remains to be seen.

Water allocation transfers have been part of the response to increasingly scarce, more valued water in Spain, Australia, Colorado and California. Citizens have a chance to contribute to the Alberta solution this fall.

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