One of the great blessings of living in Alberta is access to clean water.
For the last 130 years, water from streams and rivers in the South Saskatchewan River Basin has been divided among users.
The provincial government manages allocations to ensure enough water remains in the environment to support aquatic habitats while still providing enough for human consumption. At least 50 per cent of available water must also flow into Saskatchewan.
With the area’s population and agricultural industry growing, water in the river basin has become overallocated. Less water is being left in rivers, running the risk of unfulfilled demand in the event of a drought.
Given the tenuous situation, many have grown increasingly concerned with proposed changes to the Oldman River Basin water allocation.
The government announced last November that it was considering changing the rules that determine how the 11,000-acre-feet limit — over 13.5 billion litres— is distributed among local sectors.
With several proposed coal mines around Crowsnest Pass at various stages of the exploratory and regulatory process, many feel the changes are simply the government opening the floodgates for coal development under the pretext of underutilization.
The situation is complex, however, and getting to the bottom of it requires a bit of a deep dive.
Oldman allocation history
Back in the 1920s, a weir was constructed outside Fort Macleod to redirect the river’s flow into the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District.
Irrigation helped provide water for farmers’ crops, though high summer demand coincided with low flow levels in the river. To address shortages, the Oldman Dam was constructed in 1991 to store excess water during the high spring discharge until it was needed in the drier months.
The dam’s reservoir can hold up to 400,000 acre-feet of water, though areas within the MD of Pincher Creek, MD of Ranchland, and Municipality of Crowsnest Pass became flooded. To accommodate the lost irrigation and agriculture potential, the Oldman River Basin water allocation was established in 2003.
The order applies to areas of the Oldman River upstream from the western boundary of the Piikani reserve, including the Castle River, the Crowsnest River and their respective tributaries.
The allocation originally set aside 11,000 acre-feet of water for irrigation purposes, available via licensing through the government. The order was amended in 2010 to allow a total of 1,500 acre-feet for municipal, agricultural and commercial purposes, with 9,350 acre-feet still reserved for irrigation. An additional 150 acre-feet was permitted for industrial use.
According to Alberta Environment and Parks, only 1,296 acre-feet is currently licensed for irrigation and 326 acre-feet for all other uses.
With only 16 per cent of the allocation actually being used, 9,229 acre-feet of water is going unclaimed — and although the South Saskatchewan River Basin plan stopped issuing water licences in 2006, licences for the Oldman allocation are still allowed.
The new conceptual allocation would remove the limits imposed on each sector while mandating that 2,200 acre-feet be reserved for environmental concerns.
Why the changes?
The available licensing stems from a lack of irrigation investment, says Stewart Rood, a professor of biology at the University of Lethbridge who specializes in water resource management.
“There’s been very little uptake on that intended irrigation development,” he explains.
Irrigation works downstream, he continues, because the flatter topography allows gravity to move the water where it’s needed. The hilly region upstream would require expensive pumping. Since the area also doesn’t favour cash crops, the development initially intended by the allocation order is uneconomic.
“At one level, changing the terms of that allocation licence makes some sense,” Mr. Rood says.
However, he acknowledges that the main issue with opening up more allocation for industry comes with concerns of coal mining in the area.
Benga Mining’s proposed Grassy Mountain coal project is currently under federal review. The company has applied for 454 acre-feet of water, an amount it says is triple the actual amount it will consume but is required for recycling processes, with most of the water being treated and safely returned.
One hundred and fifty acre-feet falls under a licence Benga holds for collecting run-off that would normally enter Blairmore and Gold creeks. The remaining requested allocation would come from licence transfers from Devon Canada at York Creek, and the municipality at the Crowsnest River.
No water from York Creek or Crowsnest River will actually be extracted, though the licence transfers are required to reflect the quantity of water that will be used for the coal cleaning process at the mine.
Despite being a very small portion of the 11,000-acre-feet allocation — which in turn makes up a fraction of the 400,000-acre-feet capacity of the reservoir — the amount, says Cows and Fish executive director Norine Ambrose, needs to be contextualized to location.
“If you change the hydrology — whether you’re diverting it, or reducing it or even adding to it — you change how much water is available to the ecosystem,” she says.
Allocation orders, she says, are an important way to ensure water remains for natural uses.
“Alberta has recognized this quite a few years ago, and is doing a much better job at trying to mimic nature and allocate the flows that are needed for nature, or what’s called the instream flow needs,” Ms. Ambrose adds.
Given the sheer number of rivers, streams and creeks in Alberta that have individual characteristics, the specific levels that must remain in each for a healthy ecosystem are nearly impossible to determine.
To address this, Alberta Environment and Parks uses what’s called the desktop method to set standards that establish allocation amounts: only 15 per cent of a river or stream’s natural flow can be removed, or a minimal 80 per cent exceedance of the natural flow must be maintained.
The exceedance limit may sound overly technical but is easier when you remember rivers have different levels of flow over time. The amount of water flowing over the course of the year starts low in the winter, increases through the spring run-off and rains, and peaks before decreasing in the late summer and autumn months.
Graphing that change gives you a bell curve; the 80 per cent exceedance simply requires at least 80 per cent of that bell curve to remain in the river throughout the year.
Ideal versus reality
Despite allocations aiming to let water run its natural course, much of the Oldman River is used downstream from the reservoir.
The area is currently allocated 170,250 acre-feet, 90 per cent of which is used for irrigation. Demand is so high that the allocation order requires that only 45 per cent of the water remains in the river.
Even with such high use, Alberta has been able to honour its water commitment to Saskatchewan with about 75 per cent of water flow passing across the border, though a drought in 2001 dropped that amount quite close to the 50 per cent requirement.
Deciding who gets water in times of shortages is tied to licence seniority, known as “first in time is first in right.” With water usages evolving past agriculture and irrigation, however, identifying water rights has shifted to be based on priority. Drinking water for towns and cities takes precedence, followed by livestock.
Other sectors would then each take a cut, or “share the shortage,” to make sure no one goes without.
The issue with freeing up licences upstream from the Oldman reservoir, says Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, is licence seniority is usually enforced over sharing the shortage.
“We have concerns about those dry years where every drop counts,” she says. “Having additional licences does add a bit more pressure to the system overall and those with junior licences could get no water.”
Establishing allocations also depends on knowing what the natural needs are for the environment.
“It’s not just which of us get the water; we also have to think about the health of the river and how much we can leave in the water for the fish and the trees and the overall health of the watershed,” says Ms. Frank.
Since river flows naturally have variation, adds Mr. Rood, the natural ecosystem has evolved to deal with some variation.
“If we’re paying attention, we should be able to pick up the stress due to insufficient flow before it is irreversible or lethal,” he says.
The problem, he continues, is gathering the required information.
A Benga problem
Since the riparian health of creeks and streams is site-specific, the generalizations of the desktop method may not be adequate for every location.
As such, the effects of allowing coal companies to draw water from smaller streams in the headwater aren’t known.
Benga has 10 hydrometric stations in place, which have been measuring water flow at Gold and Blairmore creeks for the past several years. The company also states operations will reduce Gold Creek’s flow by only about 10 per cent, which is within environmental limits.
Although data is being gathered, scientifically accurate measurements on flow must allow for the wide swing in variation creeks experience. The typical standard is 30 years worth of data — a difficult mark to reach, considering the limited personnel and resources available.
“We’re challenged right now because the data on allocations isn’t done at that small of scale usually,” Ms. Ambrose says. “I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any removal of water — I think we just have to make sure that the water we do take, relative to that place, is acceptable.”
Solid data is doubly important, Ms. Frank adds, given the location of many of the proposed mines in the Oldman’s watershed.
“That’s one thing we have been asking for before we withdraw water from any of these headwater streams,” she says. “That would tell us how much we could withdraw without having a big impact.”
Issues surrounding climate change, such as earlier snow melts and declining summer flows, also mean future conditions should be accounted for. Such foresight is especially important for Gold Creek, which is home to one of the last remaining Alberta populations of westslope cutthroat trout.
Not water under the bridge yet
Although the government says altering the allocation would attract new industrial investment to the area, prospective coal mines would be first to benefit.
With water use upstream from the reservoir not as taxed as farther east, the minimal amount of flow data for the smaller headwater creeks and streams the mines would affect raises questions about local environmental stewardship — along with other water-related issues, such as pollution and treatment.
For now, further information about the changes is on hold as public consultation will resume after the province establishes its new modern coal policy, prompted by the reinstatement of the 1976 coal policy.
Public consultation on the government’s coal policy is set to begin March 29.
Current water licences can be viewed online www.alberta.ca/alberta-water-licence-viewer.aspx.