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Voluntary water limits put in place in face of possible Alberta drought

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More than three dozen of Alberta's largest water users have agreed with a provincial plan to cut back on water usage this year ahead of a severe drought expected this summer.

"With these agreements, Albertans are once again coming together when times get toughest," said Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz in a news release.

"They will help make the most of our limited water supplies and make every drop count if a severe drought hits this summer. These irrigators, industry and municipalities are demonstrating the leadership, dedication and community spirit that makes this province great."

The agreement comes after Alberta experienced "several dry years" and an extremely warm and dry winter, the province said.

The deal was struck following negotiations between the provincial government and Alberta's water licensees, who represent 90 per cent of the water allocated in the Bow and Old Man basins, and 70 per cent of the Red Deer River basin.

Companies like TransAlta have also signed on to the memorandum of understanding with over 30 other water license holders in the Bow River Basin.

"TransAlta recognizes the unique role our Bow River system plays in managing water flows while also serving as a key component of Alberta’s electricity grid," said Blain van Melle, executive vice-president, commercial and customer relations, TransAlta.

"We look forward to working with the government and downstream stakeholders to maximize water storage in the spring and optimize flows during the summer to help mitigate drought conditions should they occur."

Municipalities have also agreed to conserve water between five and 10 per cent and industries "will use only the minimum volume of water practical to maintain safe, reliable operations."

Those companies will also seek out additional water-saving measures, officials said.

The list of municipalities participating in the agreement includes the following:

  • City of Calgary;
  • City of Lethbridge;
  • City of Medicine Hat;
  • City of Red Deer;
  • Red Deer County;
  • Town of Drumheller;
  • Town of Stettler; and
  • County of Warner.

In addition, irrigation districts will use less water and allow other water users to access supplies first.

"These collaborative agreements are voluntary. They are designed to be proactive, risk-based and agile enough to be adjusted in real time as conditions change," the province said.

"The actual water amounts under the agreements will be updated every two weeks based on the latest water supply forecast."

The provincial government says with the agreements in place, it will now take on the task of monitoring conditions and issuing warnings about affected basins, producing weekly water supply forecasts, optimizing its own infrastructure to ensure they use water efficiently and optimize water storage at the Ghost Reservoir and those in the Kananaskis area.

However, Alberta's "ultimate success" this season will come as a collaborative effort between everyone who uses water – from smaller licence holders to everyday Albertans.

First water sharing negotiations in more than two decades

Schulz had sent a letter to municipal leaders last December in an effort to ask them how to reduce water usage, prompting the launch of what's been called "unprecedented water sharing negotiations" in January.

This is the first-time major water license holder has negotiated with the province since 2001.

The province has been criticized for negotiations having not taken place in more than two decades, but Schulz says these discussions only happen during an emergency.

“You know, I think what we're seeing is that these conversations were really sparked about how to prevent us from getting to a stage five water emergency, and so right now we're in stage four,” she said.

“A couple of months ago, there were some folks in the media saying why have we not declared an emergency yet? Because we're not in an emergency situation. Because we're fortunate enough to have water users in Alberta who are willing to come together to say, 'look, there is a way that we could take less water and make sure that there is enough water in the system for all users.'”

Schulz went on to say that the bigger conversation however needed to happen which is why her team put together the water advisory panel in an effort to manage water storage and how to manage water usage with population growth.

Tricia Stadynk, Canada research chair in hydrological modeling at the University of Calgary, says that answer is a bit unsatisfactory.

“I mean, part of living in Alberta is recognizing that water underpins our entire economy, whether you're talking about agriculture, or whether you're talking about oil and gas, or even whether you're talking about the new and emerging tech sector in some of the major cities because let's face it, technology these days is a major consumer of water,” she said.

“We’ve all seen the news reports of our population in Alberta exploding relative to the rest of Canada. So we've got this scenario right now, where nature isn't providing us with the water, and we're exponentially increasing the water demand. So something's got to give right? The balance isn't closing and it means that all of us need to become more water conscious.”

Farmers and ranchers feeling the impacts of drought

Alberta’s water sharing priority system dates all the way back to 1894 in what’s been called the ‘first in time, first in right’ grants seniority.

It means those who had water licenses first would have access to water first, compared with those who received one years afterwards.

Water licence holders must voluntarily share their water in times of drought, but that poses major concerns for some farmers and ranchers.

It’s especially difficult for Rachel Herbert, who is the co-owner of Trail’s End Beef with her husband Tyler.

Her farm in Nanton doesn’t have its own irrigation system, so water needs to be trucked in. A lack of it has impacted her ability to produce hay, prompting an unprecedented situation last year.

“So we're typically able to put up all of our own hay that we need to get for our cattle through a winter here in southern Alberta, but in 2023 the drought was so bad that we weren't able to put up any hay in our place,” Herbert said.

“We had to source that from other areas and that's a really common story all throughout southern Alberta. Many of us rely on hay that comes out of the irrigation districts in Lethbridge.”

Herbet sourced hay from other farms in southern Alberta and even as far as the American states of Montana and Washington.

She applauds voluntary water reductions from those living in larger municipalities and say even small changes in water usage can make a difference.

“Anything that all of us can do to make those small changes is going to add up in terms of water use and conservation, but what is really important is looking at the big picture and looking at the health of the watersheds that are in the eastern slopes,” she said.

“That's where all of our water in southern Alberta comes from. All of us downstream users are dependent on healthy, thriving watershed ecosystems in eastern slopes.

"So what we can do is really bring the policy discussion up to thinking about how we best increase the storage capacity of water in our watersheds as well."

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