Two proposals to move water from one river basin to another were approved by the Alberta Legislative Assembly on December 4 this fall session. One proposal will move water from the Red Deer River (in the South Saskatchewan River Basin) to communities in the Battle River watershed (the North Saskatchewan River Basin). The second will transfer water from the Pembina River (Athabasca River Basin) to communities both in the Athabasca and the North Saskatchewan River Basin.
Moving water between Alberta's large river basins requires approval by the Legislative Assembly. The two approved interbasin transfers will supply water to communities short on good quality water but will incrementally increase pressure on the other rivers, especially the Red Deer River.
The County of Westlock Water Authorization Act (Bill 54) will allow for a regional water system to supply water to Westlock and the Village of Clyde and Hamlet of Vimy as well as rural residents living along the pipeline. The regional system would withdraw water from the Pembina River, in the Athabasca basin, and be treated and discharged to the North Saskatchewan basin. The licence allows up to 208,780 cubic metres to to be withdrawn annually.
The East Central Regional Water Authorization Act (Bill 55) will supply treated water to 11 communities. These are the County of Stettler No.6, Camrose County, Lacombe County, County of Paintearth, Special Areas Board No. 4, Town of Castor, Town of Coronatio, Village of Rosalind, Village of Veteran, Summer Village of Rochon Sands, and Summer Village of White Sands. Similar to the County of Westlock Act, quality and quantity problems with current potable water sources are cited as the reason for the interbasin transfer. The licence would allow water to be withdrawn from the Red Deer River and be treated and discharged to the Battle River in the North Saskatchewan River Basin. The licence authorizes up to 10,800,000 cubic metres to be withdrawn annually.
To approve an interbasin transfer under the Water Act, the Environment Minister must undertake public consultation. Section 48 of the Water Act states: Minister must consult with the public "in a form and manner satisfactory to the Minister" before "a Bill to amend Sections 46 or 47 or to enact a special Act described in those sections is introduced into the Legislative Assembly". Along with public consultation of both the source and receiving basin communities, Alberta Environment requires that proponents show there will be no adverse hydrological and ecological effects.
Existing Interbasin Transfers under the Water Act
These newly approved interbasin transfers are not the first interbasin proposals to be introduced and approved under the Water Act. The Town of Bashaw and Village of Ferintosh Water Authorization Act was passed June 14 2007. This Act and Stettler Regional Water Authorization Act (approved in 2005 by the Legislative Assembly) are being repealed and replaced by the East Central Regional Water Authorization Act (Bill 55).
The Town of Bashaw and Village of Ferintosh Water Authorization Act allows for treated groundwater to be moved from the Town of Bashaw to the Village of Ferintosh. However, it will be repealed and become part of the larger East Central region.
The Stettler Regional Water Authorization Act was passed to provide water to the County of Stettler No.6, the Villages of Donalda and Big Valley, the Summer Villages of Rochon Sands and White Sands and the Hamlets of Byemoor, Endiang, Erskine, Nevis and Red Willow. This licence allowed the system to withdraw up to 2,941,000 cubic metres annually.
The North Red Deer Water Authorization Act was passed in 2002 by the Legislative Assembly to supply treated water from the Red Deer River, using the City of Red Deer water treatment plant, to the communities of Blackfalds, Lacombe and Ponoka and the First Nations Samson Band, Ermineskin Band, Montana Band and Louis Bull Band, who were experiencing problems with their respective potable water supplies. All wastewater is returned to the Battle River.
Pressure on the Red Deer—in a unique position
With the exception of the new Westlock interbasin transfer that will take water from the Pembina River, existing and one newly approved interbasin transfers have generally focused on the Red Deer River. Because the Red Deer is considered a healthy river, it is being propositioned by surrounding watersheds that are running low on water.
Some of the demand for water in the Red Deer watershed comes from the Battle River watershed. This watershed relies entirely on local surface runoff from rain and snowmelt and groundwater flows, without the benefit of mountain/foothill snow packs and glacial melt unlike many other watersheds in Alberta. Apart from water quantity constraints, the watershed also suffers water quality problems from industrial, municipal, and agricultural pressures in the watershed (AENV 2005). And a relatively healthy watershed—the Red Deer—is immediately below the Battle watershed and has room to allocate to new licensees.
Two proposals have been floated to transfer more of Red Deer's water north to communities and possibly irrigation in the Battle River and Sounding Creek watersheds. In addition to the East Central Water Supply Authorization Act (Bill 55) discussed above, there remains a controversial proposal to supply water from the Red Deer to the Sounding Creek and Battle River watersheds.
Unlike the East Central Water Supply Project (Bill 55), which will provide water for residential and commercial uses, the Special Areas Water Supply Project would be primarily for irrigation. Although Cabinet approved the project in principle in December 2006, this proposal would use up to 76,500 cubic decametres (76,500,000 cubic metres) of untreated water annually, in a region with marginal agricultural lands. Large amounts of water would evaporate while moving to its end point.
While Morris Flewwelling, Mayor of Red Deer, is supportive of the East Central Supply expansion, support for the proposed Special Areas Water Supply Project is much less. The Special Areas project also requires an environmental impact assessment and regulatory approval and would be costly, about $463 million (Brooymans 2007).
If both of these proposals are approved, 84% of the Red Deer River's water that can be licensed will be allocated. Right now 62% of the allocation limit has been allocated (Brooymans 2007).
Demand from the South
In the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB), the Red Deer River is the only watershed open to new water allocation licences. The South Saskatchewan River Basin Water Management Plan, upon its approval in August 2006, effectively "closed" the Bow, Oldman, and South Saskatchewan sub-basins because the state of allocation in these watersheds is high and environmental needs for water cannot always be met. Meanwhile, the Red Deer sub-basin is not considered over-allocated and is considered relatively healthy.
The closure of all the South Saskatchewan sub-basins except the Red Deer to new licences, however, leaves this river in a vulnerable position. The proposal to pipe water to the developing mega-entertainment complex near Balzac (just north of Calgary) illustrates this vulnerability. The Water Act does not prohibit piping water from the Red Deer to the Bow or even the Oldman because all of these sub-basins are within one major river basin—the South Saskatchewan River Basin—as defined by the Water Act.
Although this proposal to move water from the Red Deer to the Balzac development was rejected by other stakeholders (i.e., the Town of Drumheller), proposals like this are likely to arise again unless new policy and legislation changes the current licensing regime.
What impact will these demands have on the Red Deer? How much more can the Red Deer afford to give to uses outside the watershed and not see what returns—particularly if climate change means natural flow declines? The Red Deer isn't up against its limit, but it soon could be if it shares too much with neighbouring watersheds.
Alberta Environment (AENV). 2005. Battle River Basin Water Management Plan.
Bill 54, County of Westlock Water Authorization Act. 2007. Third Session, 26th Legislature, 56 Elizabeth II. The Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
Bill 55, East Central Regional Water Authorization Act. 2007. Third Session, 26th Legislature, 56 Elizabeth II. The Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
Brooymans, Hanneke. August 15, 2007. Demand grows for water from Red Deer River. Edmonton Journal.
Government of Alberta. December 7, 2007. New legislation to ensure safe, secure water for Albertans.
McKinley, Karen. September 3, 2007. Public views water diversion plans. The Camrose Canadian.
Poon, Randy. 2007. Personal communication and spreadsheet of Interbasin Transfers.
Special Areas Board. 2005. Special Areas Water Supply Project: Project Summary.