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Water Supply Needs Direction

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A water supply study of the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) due in June needs to be based on good science and clear evidence, says Brent Paterson, director of Alberta Agriculture’s Irrigation and Farm Water Division.

Paterson told delegates at the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association’s annual conference here in early February that there’s experience to be gained from other jurisdictions.

“If we look at how others view water around the world, we can learn more about how water is being managed,” said Paterson. “Still, we’ll need to come up with made-in-Alberta solutions that reflect Alberta realities.”

In many of the world’s developing countries, water is used for the most part, if not for drinking, then for food production. Recreation value and wildlife habitat are not high on the priority list when it comes to water management. “Access to quality water, for most of the world, is a daily challenge. It’s an issue of survival, not economic opportunity,” said Paterson.

He said that since every inch of land and water is used for food production, drought or crop failure can quickly result in starvation. Some countries withdraw significantly more water each year than is renewed, such as Saudi Arabia, leading to a situation where more affluent countries are beginning to buy or lease land in water and land-rich areas to grow crops. By producing crops elsewhere, these countries can divert their limited supplies of water to other areas.

“So how do we in Alberta learn from global experiences? How does that position us?” asked Paterson. He said Alberta needs to adopt a leadership role and continue to effectively manage its water resources.

An SSRB review several years ago recognized the demand for water could outstrip supply and demands for water will continue to increase. Furthermore, global warming will continue to affect water management. The corresponding Water Management Plan resulted in the closure of the Bow, Oldman and SSRB sub-basins to new water allocations. It also placed limits on the Red Deer River and endorsed the concept that new users would have to buy licenses from existing water uses. “We need to balance the health of society with the health of ecosystems, and water policies need to reflect that,” said Paterson.

There are long-term implications and opportunities related to today’s decisions, he said. As global populations continue to increase, as well as the affluence of those populations, there will be more demand for food, specifically food that requires more water, such as meat.

“The supply of food is virtually recession-proof – that’s where the opportunity lies, that is the area that is going to keep growing,” said Paterson. “Alberta will be called upon to provide additional food required for much of the world.” As water management decisions are made, Paterson urged policy-makers and producers to keep the idea of food demand and production at the forefront.

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