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Alberta’s water crisis is just beginning

Alberta’s water crisis is just beginning
It is time that Albertans get serious about our water because the consequences of our water crises are just getting started.
It is time that Albertans get serious about our water because the consequences of our water crises are just getting started.

Alberta’s water crisis is just beginning

By Dr. Sabrina Perić
By Dr. Sabrina Perić
Opinion Editorial
Shootin’ the Breeze Opinion Editorial
March 13, 2024
March 13, 2024

In the past week, Albertans have been confronted with a triple whammy of water crises.

On Feb. 20, the Government of Alberta declared the start of wildfire season, 10 days earlier than the usual March 1 start due to this season’s warm temperatures, which have been compounded by the fact that large parts of Alberta are under severe or extreme drought.

On Feb. 23, the Crowsnest River in southern Alberta was reported to have run dry upstream of Cowley. (The claim was later disputed, with the halted water flow being blamed on ice buildup.) The Crowsnest River is a tributary to the Old Man, which has seen record-low river levels and extremely low reservoir levels this year.

While many Albertans were astonished by these two announcements, the Alberta Energy Regulator also announced in an internal letter that it had accepted initial applications and is open to public hearings for the controversial Grassy Mountain coal mine on the Eastern Slopes, a project which has already been turned down twice. An application for a water diversion licence has been submitted to AER.

What does the potential coal mine have to do with water? Coal mines use 250 litres of fresh water and about 750 litres of recycled water per tonne of coal produced. According to estimates, Grassy Mountain will divert 1.125 billion litres of fresh water per year from the Old Man watershed.

Though they appeared as separate stories, this past week’s news demonstrates the interrelatedness of our crises. Alberta is experiencing a critical water shortage, and action is needed immediately.

 

Wedding banquet view of wedding venue — the Cowley Lions Campground Stockade near Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.

 

We need a new holistic approach to water in this province that looks at the cumulative impacts and interconnections between water usage and water shortage. This holistic approach also needs to consider the role of climate change in driving both increased water usage and drought.

The Government of Alberta has taken some steps to tackling our water crisis by creating a new drought advisory committee earlier this month. This committee, however, poorly represents the diversity of stakeholders and communities impacted by drought. Specifically, it does not include the communities most impacted. Alarmingly, this committee does not include water and/or drought researchers. 

The lack of scientists is troubling but not surprising considering the GOA’s acceptance of recent recommendations to consider “non-scientific evidence during an emergency.” Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz has failed to mention the impact of climate change on Alberta’s long-term droughts. Instead she blamed El Niño, a periodic system associated with warm dry weather, even while a group of scientists in her very department published research warning of extreme drought in Alberta due to global warming.

The GOA has also started, as of Feb. 1, unprecedented negotiations with Alberta’s current water licence holders, who operate under a “first in time, first in right” system. But all negotiations are occurring behind closed doors, with no indication of whether changes in water licensing are forthcoming.

Alberta needs an independent water board that has teeth and the ability to make policy, licensing and emergency decisions, apart from both the GOA and AER. An independent water board would guarantee both transparency and the more substantial inclusion of stakeholders, communities and experts than we see currently.

 

 

An independent water board could not only manage the province’s water licenses and complex water license transfer system, but also include Indigenous communities, industry, agriculture, tourism, scientists, wildfire specialists, as well as a limited number of municipal and provincial government members. 

There is already a precedent for independent water boards in Canada, in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, where water co-governance is mandated by modern treaties. While these systems too have limitations, they could be built and improved upon.

The GOA already greatly benefits from its partnership with the Alberta Water Council, Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils and Watershed Stewardship Groups, according to the GOA’s Water for Life Strategy. Why not provide these collaborators the opportunity to act directly and authoritatively through an empowered water board?

If water really is “a life source” as the GOA describes it, all Albertans should be taking a much more active role in its governance than they have been allowed to do. It is time that Albertans get serious about our water because the consequences of our water crises are just getting started.

Sabrina Perić

Energy anthropologist, associate professor at the University of Calgary, and co-director of the Energy Stories Lab

 

Ace of spades card on ad for Chase the Ace at the Pincher Creek Legion

 

Shootin’ the Breeze welcomes submissions about local issues and activities. Personal views expressed in Mailbox articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect views of Shootin’ the Breeze management and staff. 

In the past week, Albertans have been confronted with a triple whammy of water crises.

On Feb. 20, the Government of Alberta declared the start of wildfire season, 10 days earlier than the usual March 1 start due to this season’s warm temperatures, which have been compounded by the fact that large parts of Alberta are under severe or extreme drought.

On Feb. 23, the Crowsnest River in southern Alberta was reported to have run dry upstream of Cowley. (The claim was later disputed, with the halted water flow being blamed on ice buildup.) The Crowsnest River is a tributary to the Old Man, which has seen record-low river levels and extremely low reservoir levels this year.

While many Albertans were astonished by these two announcements, the Alberta Energy Regulator also announced in an internal letter that it had accepted initial applications and is open to public hearings for the controversial Grassy Mountain coal mine on the Eastern Slopes, a project which has already been turned down twice. An application for a water diversion licence has been submitted to AER.

What does the potential coal mine have to do with water? Coal mines use 250 litres of fresh water and about 750 litres of recycled water per tonne of coal produced. According to estimates, Grassy Mountain will divert 1.125 billion litres of fresh water per year from the Old Man watershed.

Though they appeared as separate stories, this past week’s news demonstrates the interrelatedness of our crises. Alberta is experiencing a critical water shortage, and action is needed immediately.

 

Ad for Ascent Dental in Pincher Creek

 

We need a new holistic approach to water in this province that looks at the cumulative impacts and interconnections between water usage and water shortage. This holistic approach also needs to consider the role of climate change in driving both increased water usage and drought.

The Government of Alberta has taken some steps to tackling our water crisis by creating a new drought advisory committee earlier this month. This committee, however, poorly represents the diversity of stakeholders and communities impacted by drought. Specifically, it does not include the communities most impacted. Alarmingly, this committee does not include water and/or drought researchers. 

The lack of scientists is troubling but not surprising considering the GOA’s acceptance of recent recommendations to consider “non-scientific evidence during an emergency.” Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz has failed to mention the impact of climate change on Alberta’s long-term droughts. Instead she blamed El Niño, a periodic system associated with warm dry weather, even while a group of scientists in her very department published research warning of extreme drought in Alberta due to global warming.

The GOA has also started, as of Feb. 1, unprecedented negotiations with Alberta’s current water licence holders, who operate under a “first in time, first in right” system. But all negotiations are occurring behind closed doors, with no indication of whether changes in water licensing are forthcoming.

Alberta needs an independent water board that has teeth and the ability to make policy, licensing and emergency decisions, apart from both the GOA and AER. An independent water board would guarantee both transparency and the more substantial inclusion of stakeholders, communities and experts than we see currently.

 

 

An independent water board could not only manage the province’s water licenses and complex water license transfer system, but also include Indigenous communities, industry, agriculture, tourism, scientists, wildfire specialists, as well as a limited number of municipal and provincial government members. 

There is already a precedent for independent water boards in Canada, in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, where water co-governance is mandated by modern treaties. While these systems too have limitations, they could be built and improved upon.

The GOA already greatly benefits from its partnership with the Alberta Water Council, Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils and Watershed Stewardship Groups, according to the GOA’s Water for Life Strategy. Why not provide these collaborators the opportunity to act directly and authoritatively through an empowered water board?

If water really is “a life source” as the GOA describes it, all Albertans should be taking a much more active role in its governance than they have been allowed to do. It is time that Albertans get serious about our water because the consequences of our water crises are just getting started.

Sabrina Perić

Energy anthropologist, associate professor at the University of Calgary, and co-director of the Energy Stories Lab

 

Ad for Creekview Dental Hygiene clinic in Pincher Creek

 

Shootin’ the Breeze welcomes submissions about local issues and activities. Personal views expressed in Mailbox articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect views of Shootin’ the Breeze management and staff. 

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