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News Release: Alberta’s Drought Response Prioritizes Industry and Irrigation over the Environment

April 19, 2024

Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) is calling on the Government of Alberta to declare a Stage 5 emergency under the Water Act following the release of new water-sharing agreements that neglect any consideration for river ecosystems.

On Friday, April 19, 2024, the province finally announced the details of the water-sharing agreements which it states are at the centre of Alberta’s drought response efforts.

According to the province’s news release announcing the agreements, 38 of the largest and oldest water licensees in southern Alberta have voluntarily agreed to reduce the water they use “if severe drought conditions develop this spring or summer.”

The announcement is framed in a way that makes it seem like drought has not yet come to the prairies, despite many rivers and reservoirs already at historic lows in early spring, and with more than 50 water shortage advisories ongoing across the province.

The province released four memoranda of understanding (MOU) as part of its announcement, which outline the specific commitments for each of four basins — the Oldman South Saskatchewan River Basin, the Bow River Basin, the Red Deer River Basin, and Southern Tributaries.

Each MOU is slightly different, but there are consistent commitments across all four:

  • Municipalities will reduce water consumption by five to 10 percent.
  • Industry will withdraw the minimum water needed to maintain safe, reliable operations.
  • Irrigation Districts will allow other users (i.e., municipalities, First Nations, and industry) to get their water first, and then share the remaining water volume amongst themselves within their licensed allocation.

However, there is a noticeable absence of any recognition for the needs of aquatic ecosystems, which require a certain volume of water for their health and function to be maintained — these are known as in-stream flow needs (or IFNs).

The Alberta government defines IFNs as: “The quantity, timing and quality of water flow required to sustain freshwater ecosystems, including fish populations as well as the human livelihoods that depend on these freshwater ecosystems.” Yet, it seems that the central pillar of the province’s drought response plan is to neglect any consideration for IFNs or the needs of aquatic ecosystems in general, while prioritizing business operations for industry and irrigation.

According to the four MOUs, municipalities seem to be the only licensed user that have committed to measurable reductions in water consumption (five to 10 percent), while industry is only encouraged to withdraw the minimum water needed to ensure reliable operations. The MOUs include explicit recognition for “operational needs and business needs,” but no mention of ecosystem, environmental, or wildlife needs.

We do appreciate that the irrigation districts have committed to allowing other licensed water users to have access to water first, but that still only considers the needs of those who hold licensed water allocations and does very little to ensure that sufficient water remains in our rivers and streams who are not licensed users.

Alberta has five water shortage management stages, and we are currently at Stage 4. By declaring Stage 5, the Alberta government could give itself additional legislative powers to suspend nonessential water use and prioritize water allocation to maintain the health and safety of both human communities and the aquatic environments we rely on. Instead, it seems that the government is content to rely upon the good will of licensed users through non-binding agreements that they may enter or exit at any time.

“Drought is an environmental problem and drought planning should consider environmental needs,” says Phillip Meintzer, Conservation Specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association. “We need to stop treating water as a commodity that exists solely for human consumption, otherwise, there won’t be enough water left over for the ecosystems that sustain us.”

AWA is encouraging the Government of Alberta to declare a Stage 5 emergency as soon as possible so that the province is able to take a proactive and precautionary approach to drought planning that considers environmental needs alongside other users.

Media Inquiries:

Phillip Meintzer, Conservation Specialist, Alberta Wilderness Association  (403) 771-1647

I needed something to pare the fat off my soul, to make me grateful again for being alive. And I knew… There is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life.
- Colin Fletcher
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