Opinion: Our water crisis is just getting started

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Albertans have recently been confronted with a triple whammy of water crises.

On Feb. 20, the province declared the start of wildfire season, 10 days earlier than usual 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.

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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.

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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 that has already been twice rejected. An application for a water diversion licence has been submitted.

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 freshwater per year from the Old Man watershed.

Though separate stories, this demonstrates the interrelatedness of our crises. Alberta is experiencing a critical water shortage, and immediate action is needed. We need a new holistic approach to water that looks at the cumulative effects and interconnections between usage and supply. This approach also needs to consider the role of climate change in driving both increased water usage and drought.

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The government has taken some steps to tackle the crisis by creating a new Drought Advisory Committee earlier this month. This committee, however, poorly represents the diversity of stakeholders and communities affected by drought, and does not include water and/or drought researchers.

The lack of scientists is troubling but not surprising considering the government’s acceptance of recent recommendations to consider “non-scientific evidence during an emergency.” Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz has failed to mention the effect 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 government has also started, as of Feb. 1, unprecedented negotiations with 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.

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Alberta needs an independent water board that has teeth and the ability to make policy, licensing and emergency decisions, separate from the government and Alberta Energy Regulator. An independent board would guarantee transparency and more substantial inclusion of stakeholders, communities and experts.

An independent board could manage the province’s water licences and complex water licence transfer system, and include Indigenous communities, industry, agriculture, tourism, scientists, wildfire specialists, and 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 have limitations, they could be built and improved upon.

The government already greatly benefits from its partnership with the Alberta Water Council, Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils and Watershed Stewardship Groups. 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 government 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 the crises are just getting started.

Dr. Sabrina Perić is an energy anthropologist, associate professor at the University of Calgary and the co-director of the Energy Stories Lab.

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