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Will the Alberta Water Conversations be Effective?

The long awaited Water Conversations took place in nineteen towns and cities throughout the province over the last month. Water Matters attended several stakeholder and public meetings and commends the Government of Alberta (GOA) for improving the consultation process, as many of the past consultations were simply open houses with little facilitated dialogue. This time around the GOA’s stated goal is to get feedback from Albertans on the future of water in the province with a long-term perspective of 50 years. To be planning that far into the future in a politicized arena is impressive and noteworthy. However, it remains to be seen whether or not stakeholder and individual water concerns will be appropriately addressed through effective policy and management that will protect Albertans’ health and environment into the future.

Four Conversation Topics

The Conversations were guided by four topics: water management, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), healthy lakes, and drinking water and wastewater systems. In attending the meetings, it was not made clear that the four topics are interrelated. For instance, it may have been perceived that water management is different than fracking, when in fact it is water management in fracking practices that are of great concern.

When we asked how the four topics were chosen the response was, “the GOA has been hearing that these are the concerns of Albertans.” The means of determining the guiding topics of discussions should not be arbitrary; rather they should be based on imminent concerns that experts, stakeholders, and the public have addressed formally. There was no clear answer on how the GOA determined the topics, and as a result the discussions were hindered by reducing the focus on the most concerning water issues, including those addressed by scientists, policy experts, and conservationists: sustainable water management, water allocation, groundwater risks, wetlands policy, and in-stream flowneeds (IFNs). Water Matters and other organizations have highlighted water concerns on these topics in past publications and studies, yet they remain sidelined by the conversation process.

At the beginning of the Conversations it was made clear that issues that do not fall in the identified topics would not be discussed, but rather identified for future follow-up.  Later in the series of the Conversations this tone changed allowing some flexibility. Had the major water concerns been vetted with stakeholders and experts prior to the events, the session might have been more inclusive of topics of significant concern. For example, questions came up pertaining to the FIT-FIR (“ 1st in time, 1st in right” or prior allocation water rights) system and historical water rights that have been allocated long ago, and whether or not this system is appropriate in our current state where water supply, use, and demand have changed dramatically from when it was originally made. This is but one of many complex water management issues that needs to be addressed in significant depth.

Conversations

Each conversation started with an introduction from the GOA and lead facilitator. It was implied, at each meeting that Alberta can address its water issues by “optimizing our current system” on how we use and manage water, but depending on the issues, optimization may not be the solution. In fact, our current use and management of water is not designed to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems. Also, in the “Our Water, Our Future: A Conversation with Albertans” document there were general questions posed to guide the conversations and gear a response of feedback and general ideas, rather than an assessment of priority water issues or options of dealing with specific water concerns. Is that not how we should optimize the system, by identifying and finding solutions to problems? This leads us to believe these conversations are less about improving Alberta’s water understanding, management, and legislation, and more about public perception.

The Conversations were based on the four general topics with an allotment of 30 minutes to discuss each topic, which allowed for little discussion and at times became simply a platform for disgruntled individuals. Facilitators were quick to move the comments on, however delving deeper into subjects was hindered by:  time, individuals’ understanding, and the inability of having the experts actively participate in the discussions—experts were limited to answer only direct questions. Having representatives from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) and Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) were useful, but the initial meetings lacked the more direct presence of policy and scientific experts. The GOA addressed this towards the end of the tour and at least one ERCB and AESRD representative was present at the fracking table. Despite their presence, there were few individuals who could describe or clarify policies and regulations relevant to the issues that surfaced (e.g. pertaining to fracking operations), which resulted in little discussion on the specifics. Instead, individuals in the audience were informing others at the table, which may have resulted in misinformation.

What’s next?

It was evident that there was insufficient public communication and understanding of the topics to begin with. Was this process the best way to “optimize our current system”? Was the process for public perception or effective water management? How will the government evaluate these conversations? Will each comment from individuals have equal weight to future decisions? Or will the experts in their field have more of a say and influence? What GOA discussions will follow this process? Will they involve all stakeholders and experts to work on targeted water issues of concern? Or does it end here?

Water Matters remains unclear about the effectiveness of the process at this time. The onus is now on the GOA to show us all how this process will benefit Albertans by providing protection for the environment and human health for the next 50+ years. We urge the GOA to address these questions following the Water Conversations and prove to informed stakeholders that the process was not a public relations exercise.

Water concerns to think about under the four topics

Water Matters indicated some priorities for the conversations in depth and list key messages to encourage conversations beyond this process:

Water Management

      Alberta must stay within its ecological limits within its watersheds where enforced regulations, policies, and thresholds should be based on science (not arbitrarily) and future predictions.

      In-stream flow needs (IFNs) must be used for ecological flow protection and rather than using annual average flows use science-based minimum weekly flows for dry years and different seasons.

      Water regulations and policies should be based on pre-industrial and long-term baseline data.

      Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced and impacts from a changing climate must be implemented in adaptation plans. Thus, the GOA should not rely on stationarity of hydrographs and consider increases in flooding and droughts in the future.

      Off-stream water storage should be deferred until strong IFNs and conservations measures are in place. On-stream dams should be rejected, as they are highly destructive ecologically.

      Scientific assessment of ecosystem services and ecological thresholds of river health throughout Alberta must be initiated, which includes connected groundwater sources and riparian zones.

      Provincial or international case studies of progressive water management initiatives should be examined.

      Allocation policy should be reformed and licensing system improved such as:

      Implementing IFNs before any water license transfer system, expansion of irrigation districts, and municipal and industrial development.

      Adopting more policy options and mechanisms for water rights holders to reallocate water to the environment.

      Adopting licensing for regional withdrawals of groundwater.

      Amending the Water Act to permit and require partial cancellation of unused water rights to enhance the amounts of water reclaimed for environmental purposes.

      Developing and implementing firm guidelines that will allow water sharing among senior and junior licencees during the low flow years.

 

Hydraulic Fracturing

      Limitations to freshwater use in injection practices should be implemented.

      Thresholds for sustainable aquifer use in terms of water quality and quantity should be developed, applied, and enforced.

      Toxic chemicals should be reduced and full disclosure of chemical type and quantity should be required by law.

      Auditing of well casing and sealing practices and integrity should increase.

      Risks of contaminating groundwater from high-pressure fracking and steaming should be reduced.

      The pace of industrial development should not exceed the pace of adequate monitoring (e.g. groundwater supplies) and should be based on ecological sustainability. For example, Alberta should complete their groundwater inventory program before major industrial development.

      The regulatory framework that has science-based thresholds and enforceable directives should be consistent and regionally comprehensive.

 

Healthy Lakes

      Lakes are interconnected to their watershed and catchment basins thus the focus should be expanded to conserving wetlands, river and creeks, and groundwater.

      The ecosystem services prairie and peat wetlands provide must be recognized and science-based wetlands policy should be implemented using Alberta Water Council recommendations suggesting no-net-loss of wetlands and precautionary compensation.

      Water withdrawals should be reduced, particularly during low-flow periods, to maintain ecological integrity.

      Groundwater monitoring, risk assessment, and enforceable science-base policies must be improved.

      Science-based limits to excessive sediment, nutrient and pollutant inputs and runoff must be implemented.

 

Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems

      Groundwater aquifers and more monitoring are required to be better understood.

      Industrial impacts on individual wells and accumulative effects must be examined.

      Systems must be approached with an ecological perspective rather than pure economics, which will ensure long-term ecological and public health.

      Infrastructure must be updated with ecologically friendly alternatives that reduce water use and prevent pollution.

What can I do?

We encourage you to share your comments on the process or on specific water issues, email the GOA or the Environment Minister directly and complete the online workbook by April 12th with your detailed concerns inserted into the comment boxes. Also, it is not too late to contribute to one more discussion scheduled today, April 3rd in Fort Chipewyan.

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