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Our Priorities for Alberta’s Water Conversations

With Alberta initiating the series of "water conversations" to begin next week and run into mid-March, Water Matters staff will be highlighting a variety of important issues  related to water management in Alberta.  We described these issues in a series of three brief reports published during the last year.  The four issues that will be discussed at these public and stakeholder meetings include fracking and its use and effects on water, the state of lakes in Alberta, drinking and wastewater systems, and water management.

The first three issues to be discussed are getting a lot of media and public attention and have become political hot-button issues.  Unfortunately, the fourth topic — water management — is the one that is of most concern to us because it forms the umbrella under which the problems associated with the other three issues have arisen.  Simply put, controversies around fracking, the health of our lakes (and rivers), and the state of our drinking and wastewater systems all are the product of water management policies and approaches that fail to ensure the sustainable management of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater resources.

In Sharing Our Rivers: How Albertans Can Maintain Healthy Rivers, Communities and Economies, we emphasized the importance of instream flow needs (IFNs) and the operational and policy changes needed to secure the long-term health of Alberta’s rivers.

IFNs are scientific descriptions of the amount of water needed to sustain and protect the various chemical, biological and physical functions that all contribute to maintaining river health, throughout a river's length and during the different seasons.  The absence of a policy in Alberta to protect rivers with science-based IFNs erodes river health that collectively benefits all Albertans. Without changing the way Alberta manages rivers, the Government of Alberta will likely be unable to achieve the goals of the Water for Life Strategy or satisfy the purpose of the Water Act, at least as they relate to managing the use, allocation, and conservation of water in ways that sustain and ensure a healthy environment for future generations.

It is our position that Alberta needs to develop and adopt a science-based IFN policy that provides for rigourous scientific assessment of IFNs and dictates that river-specific IFNs shall be applied without exception in a “one- window” approval regime for all water allocation and water and land-use management approval decisions that fall under the authority of the Water Act, Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and Alberta Land and Stewardship Act.

Because IFNs are unknown for all rivers in Alberta other than the South Saskatchewan (SSRB), this means we need to initiate assessments of river health throughout Alberta, including connected groundwater sources and riparian zones that require peak flows, based upon a scientific assessment of ecosystem services and ecological thresholds.  We should begin to identify IFNs for unclosed basins on the basis of ecosystem services and ecological threshold analysis, including connected groundwater sources and riparian zones that require peak flows. For the over-allocated SSRB, we must identify specific long-term goals for sub-basins to eventually achieve flows equivalent to scientific IFNs, rather than the decision by regulators to permit and manage allocation to the arbitrary and non-protective levels promoted today (i.e., 55% of natural flows).

Outside the SSRB, we need to apply interim precautionary IFNs determined according to Alberta Environment's "Desktop Method." Using a coherent scientific plan, we must develop a phased approach to define and implement science-based IFNs throughout Alberta, including connected groundwater sources and riparian zones that require peak flows. We must establish a clear timeline for development and adoption of IFNs, and an adaptive management approach to continually assess the appropriateness of IFNs and whether our rivers are degrading over time due to our development decisions.

In Allocating Our Water: Changing to Meet the Public Interest, we described the nature of water allocation in Alberta and the path to achieving the goals of Alberta’s Water For Life policy.  In Moving Waters: Water Management Options to Achieve Social, Economic and Environmental Goals, we explore the ways to achieve more equitable distribution of water rights while responding to growing social, environmental, and economic challenges.  The problems and recommendations described in these two reports speak directly to the fourth issue of priority identified by Alberta for the upcoming public discussion, and indirectly to the other three issues:

1. Adopt more policy options and mechanisms for water rights holders to reallocate water to the environment.  This includes adopting IFNs as an enumerated use in the Water Act for licenced water rights, and allowing permanent transfers of used and unused rights to third-party water trusts for this purpose, while protecting the priority of rights. Provincial water conservation plans (i.e., CEPs) for different sectors have been adopted because of the risks of growing water demand colliding with declining water supply. However, CEPs do not benefit rivers in the long term, because rights to conserved water remains with licence holders, allowing them to sell those rights or expand their current operations. Instead, conserved water should automatically return to Alberta, with a substantial portion then reallocated to a water trust to meet and protect IFNs. The remaining conserved water could return to the licence holder, provided the use employs best-available efficiencies for that use that have been demonstrated elsewhere.
2. Change and clearly enunciate the use and purpose of Water Conservation Objectives (WCOs) in the Water Act needs to ensure that they are based upon or related to a science-based determination of IFNs.  Include a requirement for the Director to ensure IFN requirements are satisfied before new approvals are granted.  WCOs are supposed to be used to protect rivers in Alberta, but meeting them is currently neither scientific nor required. 
3. Amend the Water Act to permit and require partial cancellation of unused water rights — including pre-1999 licences — to enhance the amount of water reclaimed for environmental purposes. This should be accompanied by amendments to the Water Act that permit rights holders to retain the unused rights and avoid cancellation by entering into short-term agreements that commit unused water to IFNs or improve river health for a period of no more than five years. The criteria for “good standing” maintenance of fully or partially unused water rights should also be expanded, and use of rights within a five-year period should be required to maintain such standing.
4. Develop and implement guidelines that will govern water sharing among senior and junior licencees during low flow years (i.e., droughts). Sharing must be restricted to remaining within watersheds, and the highest priority given equally to IFNs and basic human needs. The remainder of available water should be distributed equitably among licencees, according to both priority and hydrological availability. All municipalities and major sectoral licencees should develop and adopt drought risk and conservation plans that are consistent and complementary with each other and adhere to the guidelines.

In recent years and in response to unprecedented droughts, Australia has had to spend $8.9 billion on recovering water rights to enhance and protect river health in the Murray-Darling Basin. This highlights the danger of Alberta's historical — and current — approach to managing allocation of water rights: over-allocating water rights on the basis of policies and regulations completely disconnected from scientific understanding of IFNs, then closing a basin to new water licences because of concerns about the effects of increasing water use on river health. This is a clear example of the exceptional financial cost of unsustainable water management and the haphazard introduction of water markets that do not have a clearly enunciated purpose that prioritizes protection of instream flows and river health.

Texas is now experiencing a similar crisis.  After having recognized the need to change how water is managed and allocated to regain and protect river health, Texas was hit by a record drought. Texas is a cautionary reminder of the dangers of delaying a move toward more sustainable water management until action is inspired by an emergency, rather than the result of a clear and well thought out plan.

A variety of creative options and tools are available to Alberta to restore, maintain, and enhance river health, while ensuring and facilitating appropriate and sustainable economic development and minimizing future economic, social and environmental risk. Alberta could face a fate similar to Australia or Texas if it does not prioritize long-term recovery or protection of river health as a clear and primary purpose underlying its water management laws and policies — including any water market — and introduce market limits and incentives that are strictly intended to enhance recovery and protection of river health. This includes routine use of water trusts and the other options listed above that have been successfully employed in Oregon. Similarly, Alberta must integrate watershed and land-use planning in a way that seriously considers approving new water-dependent development only in parts of the province where risks of future water shortages are low, as projected by complementary assessments of IFNs and long-range water supply that consider the risks of climate change, as well as watershed-level water use projections.

Ultimately, if Albertans want a future with safe, secure drinking water supplies, healthy aquatic ecosystems, and reliable water supplies for a sustainable economy, we must carefully consider options and approaches that combine both market and policy changes.

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