In This Edition...
Since the release of the Prairie Water Directive on World Water Day, the prairie provinces have been escalating conversations on water management; from wetlands protection, priority allocation for people and the environment to safe drinking water and privatization schemes. Water is sacred and prairie residents are working from the headwaters through to lake winnipeg to ensure it is protected.
In March 2009, the Government of Alberta (GOA) announced its intentions to review the provinces systems for water allocation and embark on public consultations on proposed changes by the fall of 2009. Changes to the system will eventually lead to a change in Alberta’s water law and policy.
Alberta’s water market already compromises our ability to protect the health of our rivers, fish populations, and ecosystems. Deregulating the current water market could mean the removal or simplification of government rules and regulations that constrain the operation of market forces. But water is too precious to decrease protective measures about how and where it is used. For example, deregulation could mean a loss of public oversight on how our water will be managed or threaten existing policies that protect water. It could even open the door for price increases on water to everyday Albertans.
The Prairie Water Directive, a call to action for water security in the Prairie Provinces supported by over 30 organizations across the region, states the following:
Provincial governments should review their water allocation systems and ensure that the systems are designed to maintain the integrity of natural water systems based on current and future anticipated availability. Ensuring adequate and sustainable quantities to maintain ecosystem functioning should be the top priority. Second, but nearly equal, should be the priority of providing for basic human/household needs.
Water is a critical issue in Alberta
Alberta’s water supply is small and dwindling. Although Alberta boasts 16 percent of Canada’s population, it only has 2.2 percent of Canada’s fresh water. Most of Alberta’s water comes from glaciers and mountain snowpack. According to a growing body of research, the changing climate will reduce the amount of water available in Alberta.
Alberta is over-allocating its water supply. Many scientists believe that a small portion of flow can be removed without measurable degradation of any ecosystem. This is estimated to be anywhere between 5-35 percent of natural flows. But by 2005, 60-70 percent of southern Alberta’s natural water supply had been allocated for use. Only 4.8 percent of water allocated in Alberta have been set aside for fish, wildlife, recreation and habitat. And, only 12 percent of water allocated in Alberta has been set aside for municipal purposes. The remaining 83 percent is allocated for irrigation, commercial use, and industry. As climate change decreases our water supply, and demand for water continues to increase, many towns and cities in Alberta will run out of water in the next decade.
Deregulation will harm Albertan’s access to clean and affordable water. The GOA is considering whether to deregulate the way water rights are issued, bought, sold, and managed. Deregulation would compromise the health of our rivers, fish populations and ecosystems and threatens to increase the amount Albertans have to pay for their water.
Governments manage resources, such as water, in the public interest and must therefore have a significant degree of control, influence and oversight on how it is used, distributed and returned to our streams. The “First in Time - First in Right” system may have made sense a 100 years ago when population was scarce, development of the prairies was a priority, and water seemed plentiful. This perspective no longer holds true today. The impacts of climate change will have significant effects on our river systems. Coupled with the effects of the regions natural drought cycles (particularly relevant for the southern half of our province) and increasing development and population pressures water will become increasingly scarce. The FITFIR system, therefore, is no longer to manage water for the public interest in light of the increasing water demands and the coming effect of global climate change.
Concerns with allocation are not solely the concern of those living in our Southern river basins. Alberta’s Northern rivers and waters, are too, experiencing significant pressures. Hydro developments on the British Columbia reaches of the Peace River have significantly impacted the Peace - Athabasca Delta. Furthermore, the growing intensification of tar sands operations on the Peace-Athabasca Delta also removes tremendous volumes of water from the hydrological cycle and stores them in vast tailings containment facilities that have been proven to leak toxic waters back into the Athabasca’s tributaries and rivers.
Impacts on water, as those described above, are not confined to Alberta’s surface-waters. Groundwater sources are also being threatened. The emerging trend to access deep tar sands deposits spread out through Northern Alberta, is beginning to have tremendous impacts on the regions ground water aquifers. Ongoing coal-bed methane projects, and specifically water contamination by the industries toxic fracing fluids, continue to spark fears in rural well users in central Alberta. Groundwater aquifers remain a mystery as we continue to have no complete picture of their volumes and make-up. Industrial use of groundwater and groundwater contamination are significant concerns.
Water is too precious to leave to chance.
Increased demands on our province’s water supplies and the over allocation of river basins have created a need for a new era in decisions about water. Proponents of free-market business will undoubtedly push for a deregulated (or less regulated) open market approach for distributing and transferring already scarce water resources. Too often, this government has seized the opportunity to cut costs and enable the market manage itself. Unfortunately, when it comes to water this is dangerous because water is just not an economic commodity.
Proposals for a share-based water allocation system are gaining in prominence around the world. Australia, for example, adopted a shared-based water allocation system which is premised on the notion that water availability should be shared among all users. A share-based system can provide water users with a degree of certainty. It can identify a clear order of priority and a proportional volume that can determine and guide water allocation decisions, particularly in times of shortage when water instream is most important.
By contrast, Alberta’s system gives preference only to the oldest water licenses (first in time - first in right). However, Australia still falls short to ensure enough water is allocated to the environment. In any case, any future system in Alberta should have mechanisms in place to protect river flows for people and the environment, drought management planning for extreme circumstances while leaving the remaining volume of water for economic use.
The first step in establishing a share-based allocation system must be to identify water that is to be left instream. It is recommended that an interim instream shares be identified for all basins immediately. Following the establishment of interim instream flows, scientific research, river flow modeling, future-forecast modeling, social-use examinations, and treaty rights assessments can be completed to determine a volume of environmental flow that is scientifically, socially and legally acceptable. This approach should not be guided by attempts to achieve equi-balance across all sectors but instead be guided by a philosophy of sustainability and grounded in scientific and cultural understanding. Once defined, this volume of water should be established as the Environmental Share. This volume of water is the basis for stability in the region. It protects water users, it protects the river health and is the basis for economic activity in the basin for the future. This water must be held independent from allocation schemes (which will be discussed a little later). Science to date show that this volume of water ranges from 70-90% of a rivers natural flow, depending of course on the specific river under examination.
The remaining volumes of water can then be allocated for economic purposes. This must be tied closely to land-use decisions and must reflect the broader environmental, social and economic values of a region. For example, it does not make economic, social or ecological sense to build water intensive communities or industries in the Palliser Triangle region of the province, one of Canada’s most arid regions. Development in dry regions must reflect the scarcity of resources - particularly water. Our economic and land-use decisions must also reflect these limits of ecosystem health.
Concern with Water Markets.
Very simply, water markets are a method to move water from one user to another – called a water transfer in Alberta. Methods and tools to allocate and transfer water licences abound. Market solutions for water transfers, however,do not come without their problems or challenges. Significantly, water markets do not discern between uses, identify priority uses or manage social impacts. Proponents argue that they act as a tool to transfer water from a lower use to a higher value use but largely in an economic context. Water markets to not favour water to be set aside or people or the environment. In a water scarce region, like the SSRB, water transfers may become a hot economic commodity. The basics of economic supply/demand analysis have proven that scarce resources drive economic prices up. Meaning without appropriate regulation, those industries that can afford to pay more for water licences will succeed more readily in the market, leaving users like small-businesses and family-farms increasingly water insecure.
An alternative to a free-market approach is a full regulatory system. This system relies on government intervention and control over licences and any proposed transfers. A regulatory system builds a process for significant public accountability towards the direction of licence allocations and transfers. Despite what critics suggest, this system need not be onerous. In cases where there are multiple requests for a licence transfer, it allows the public (ie. the Government of Alberta) to make a social value on distribution of water. It may be that small-business, rural economy or family farms higher in social value to a region than big-business, industry users or wasteful water-users.
in 1998, South Africa introduced a National Water Act that places a high priority on ecosystem and human-needs. The act stipulates that Water “reserves” must be identified in order to meet requirements for basic human need, and environmental flow needs. This reserve, or in its absence a preliminary reserve, must be established before other uses of water are authorized. As a state controlled process the value of water for the public is first upheld through legislation and maintained by active government oversight into the allocation authorization process.
Alberta can learn from best-practices in regions around the world, regions learning from mistakes in previous allocation schemes and also regions being proactive in ensuring water allocations first meet ecosystem and human needs.
In order to protect water instream for ecosystem users, including humans, we must:
Identify a scientifically defensible proportion of water to be left instream, for each basin in Alberta, for the purpose of maintaining overall ecosystem health and stability. A base amount of water be identified to achieve basic human health which would not be threatened by economic instruments considered for licence transfer system. As this water maintains the basis for economic activity in the basin, this proportion of water must have paramount priority and be outside of influence from economic uses of water (and any market-based system implemented by the Government of Alberta). It is our believe that the share base system provides the most appropriate working model identified to date.
Ensure water allocation decisions are tied closely to land-use plans. These must reflect the broader environmental, social and economic values of a region.
Plan for drought management by providing increased clarity on proportion of water identified for specific water uses by adjusting water allocations from a volumetric allocation to proportional allocation.
In conclusion, Water is not a marketable commodity. It is not an item that should be bought or sold. Water is imperative to life. Each of these facts and principles must be upheld in any proposed changes to water allocation in Alberta. Our Indigenous brothers and sisters believe that water is the blood of the earth. Without it there is no life. Water is sacred and it must be governed as such. This means an active and engaged public administration. It means clear and upheld priority of uses.
Contact Premier Ed Stelmach and Environment Minister Rob Renner. Tell them we need to protect water for humans and ecosystems first!
Office of the Premier
Room 307, Legislature Bldg.
10800 - 97th Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2B6
Phone: (780) 427 2251
Send an email by going to:
The Honorable Robert Renner
Minister of the Environment
425 Legislature Building
Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2B6
To Premier Stelmach/Honorable Minister Renner,
I am aware the Alberta government is considering changes to the water allocation system. Please consider proactive alternatives that ensure enough water is set aside to maintain environmental health and provide for Albertan’s basic needs.
To this end, I also urge you to reject proposals to deregulate the water allocation system in favour of alternatives that provide strict government oversight of our water. Water is too precious to be left to the whim of the market that is incapable of safeguarding the complex systems needed to maintain stable economies and healthy ecosystems.
Today, there is significant water security for economic users of water, but there is now an even stronger need to guarantee water security for Albertans, the healthy environment we depend on, and the forests, lakes, rivers and fish and wildlife populations we enjoy for recreation.
As the supply of water becomes increasingly constrained, we need to ensure that we are conserving water for our priority uses – water for all Albertans and their environment. That is the highest priority.
Did you know that up to 70% of wetlands have been lost or degraded in settled areas of Canada? An equal amount of prairie wetlands have too been drained or filled in.
Wetlands, aside from their aesthetic values are essential for the protection of human and ecosystem health. Wetlands store as much as 40 percent of global terrestrial carbon.
It is estimated that Alberta’s peatland-wetland systems store up to 13.75 billion tonnes of carbon.
New research by Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) has identified that the continued loss of wetlands in Manitoba is increasing phosphorus loads into Lake Winnipeg equivalent to dumping 10 semi loads of commercial agricultural fertilizer or 544,000 bags of lawn fertilizer directly into the lake every year.
Wetlands also help improve water quality by filtering and decomposing harmful pollution. It is known, for example, that wetlands can reduce nitrate concentrations by 80% and phosphorous by 94%. Furthermore, wetlands play an essential function to help reduce the intensity of flooding and minimize flood damage by storing water. One-half hectare of wetlands can store over 6,000 cubic metres of floodwater. When wetlands disappear, ecosystem functions are lost (e.g. water purification) and the cost of replicating those natural processes is incurred.
Given these ecosystem services, why is wetland protection then, not a top policy objective across the Prairie Provinces?
One need not look too deep to imagine the experienced benefits that could result with restored and protected wetlands in the region.
Every spring, flood water management in Manitoba hits national news headlines and a few months later is usually matched with concerns of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg.
Saskatchewan alone has lost 2/3rds of their wetlands in the agricultural south while the northern half of the province is facing all new threats with expansions of Canada’s tar sands industry into the province and continued threats of uranium extraction development.
Nearly a quarter of Alberta is currently under threat to the rapidly expanding tar sands industry. An industry which is occurring in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest, home to some of the regions most important wetlands, bogs and fens.
Yet policy support for strong wetlands protection appears stalled across the region.
In the fall of 2008, after three years of negotiations, the Alberta Water Council submitted a series of policy recommendations to the Alberta government for the establishment of a comprehensive wetlands policy for the entire province. The main message from the recommendations, at the time, was that the province needed a policy of no-net-loss for wetlands across the province. After a year of silence, concerns are mounting that this much needed policy for the provinces is on a shelf somewhere, collecting dust.
With unprecedented loss of wetlands in the northern (often referred to as ‘Green’) half of the province being brought on by the onslaught of tar sands development, this policy represents a principle missing element in the Alberta Governments lack luster environmental policy. Although many may be able to place the tar sands in the boreal forest of northern alberta, few may know that this region is one of the richest in wetlands - most of which are peat, bogs and fenns. The McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, one of the most prominent of these wetlands, is currently at threat due to approved and encroaching tar sands mining developments.
The prominence of wetlands in the tar sands region might then explain why the mining and tar sands sectors withdrew their support for the proposed policy at the 11th hour making its recommendations non-consensus - and hence a political hot-potato. With no mention of the proposed wetlands policy in Stelmach’s 2009 speech from the thrown, nor a peep of it in the recently released provincial tar sands strategy, the policy recommendation seems to have been placed on a shelf to collect dust alongside a growing list of non-consensus recommendations gone to the government over the years.
There are over 50,000 hectares of wetlands at stake in Alberta. Quick adoption of a wetlands policy would ensure a no net loss of these wetlands for Alberta and most importantly the protection of the vital services these specific wetlands provide. For example, according to a more recent report by the Canadian Boreal Initiative, the annual non-market benefit of peatlands is more significant than originally estimated. Peatlands cover 16 percent of Alberta. They are estimated to provide $52 billion in services annually (for carbon storage, flood control, and water filtering).
Sasktachewan’s current wetlands policy, speaks good language around no loss of wetland area and/or function though legislation to legally back up the provinces policy has not been developed. It therefore lacks the legal teeth necessary to be enforced across the province.
Manitoba, meanwhile, does have a wetland policy embeded in the Goverment’s broad water policy documents though it falls short of identifying quantifiable targets for wetland protection. Given the wetland function for flood control, phosphorous control and in carbon storage rehabilitating wetlands in the provinces south should clearly be a top government environmental priority.
As we do a quick scan across the Prairies it is clear that wetlands across the region are threatened and that policy and legislation across the region continues to fall short in protecting the integrity of these vital ecosystem regions. Priority should be given NOW to enacting policy and corresponding legislation which will protect wetland area and function in each of the three Prairie Provinces.
Upon the reconvening of the fall session of parliament, the Environment Committee will be discussing Bill C-311. If passed, this bill will ensure that Canada commits to science-based targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Please voice your support for this crucial legislation.
Passing Bill C-311 before international climate talks in Copenhagen will send a clear message to the world – we can stop dangerous climate change.
Send an online letter to all members of the Environment Committee. Canada must do its fair share to tackle the climate crisis.
More ways you can take action
Members of the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee
• James Bezan (Selkirk—Interlake), BezanJ@parl.gc.ca, (613) 992-2032, (204) 785-6151
• Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis), ScarpF@parl.gc.ca, (613) 995-8281, (514) 695-6661
• Bernard Bigras (Rosemont—La Petite—Patrie), BigraB@parl.gc.ca, (613) 992-0423, (514) 729-5342
• Peter Braid (Kitchener—Waterloo), Braid.P@parl.gc.ca, (613) 996-5928, (519) 746-1573
• David McGuinty (Ottawa South), McGuiDa@parl.gc.ca, (613) 992-3269, (613) 990-8640