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Diversions and brokering: A glimpse into Alberta's water future?

A proposal to sell off vast quantities of Alberta's diminishing water resources — the first of its kind in Canada — and massive diversions between river basins pose a major threat to Alberta's remaining supplies of fresh water, according to a report published April 22, Earth Day, by Randy Christensen of Ecojustice and Danielle Droitsch formerly of Bow Riverkeeper — now Executive Director of Water Matters.

Report CoverFight to the Last Drop: A Glimpse into Alberta's Water Future, published by the environmental law firm Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) and conservation group Bow Riverkeeper, focuses on recent events, including an August 2007 proposal by the largest consumer of water on the Bow River — the Eastern Irrigation District — to dramatically expand its water licences and use the increased water for purposes other than irrigation and agriculture.

Alberta Environment eventually halted the EID application, which could have affected up to 900 billion litres of water, with no clear indication of where the water might go. The province then decided to launch a broader review into whether Irrigation Districts could become water brokers and essentially sell water to whomever they wished.

"It is absolutely critical that members of the public be able to fully participate in that review given the enormous challenges Alberta faces with increasing water demand and shrinking water resources," said Randy Christensen, co-author of the report and a Vancouver-based Ecojustice lawyer and a leading authority on Canadian water issues.

"Given the enormity of the challenge posed by global warming and its effect on Alberta's future water supplies, it's vital that the public be involved," added co-author Danielle Droitsch. "We can't forget that Alberta has only 2.2 per cent of Canada's renewable freshwater and that 80 per cent of this is in the north, while 80 per cent of the province's population is in the south."

In their report, Christensen and Droitsch credit the Alberta government for taking some decisive steps, such as its moratorium on new water applications in southern Alberta. But, the authors note, the moratorium has fueled calls for massive water diversions, such as last year's proposal to pipe water 200 km from the Red River basin to the Balzac development, a proposed casino, shopping mall and horse track complex. Only after vocal public opposition, did the developer turn, instead, to an Irrigation District to purchase the water.

The report notes that robust provincial regulations are vital to protect the environment and ensure that the public has access to sustainable supplies of clean freshwater in future years. This is especially critical when one considers the changing role of Irrigation Districts, which control three quarters of the water allocated in Alberta's southern water systems.

Irrigation Districts "are seeking the authority to provide water to any person for virtually any purpose at whatever price they deem appropriate," the report states. It concludes that if this is allowed to continue, the provincial government will quickly lose its ability to control water management as the Districts do "an end-run around explicit rules that allow the transfer of water rights, provided adequate protections are in place."

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