Gary Flitton can still hear his grandfather’s voice. “Without water, you have nothing,” the family patriarch would tell his grandson as the pair flung hay bales onto horse-drawn wagons.
Born in Missouri, Flitton’s grandfather, Bill Ohler, moved to Alberta in 1908 in search of a new life and cheap land. He settled on a patch of dusty prairie some 150 kilometres south of Calgary, an area plagued by drought and summer heat, where he raised cattle and planted rye, barley and wheat. In the days before irrigation pipes, reservoirs and mechanical pumps, farmers here had to dig deep for water or scramble for riverfront land.
“I remember him digging wells to hell on his place, but he could never get decent water,” says Flitton, who today grows cereal and raises livestock 20 km north of his grandfather’s original homestead. Flitton also spent 20 years lobbying government to build the 856-hectare Twin Valley Reservoir in Vulcan County, a project completed in 2004. Though it has been several decades since his grandfather tilled his first Alberta field and irrigation techniques have im-proved tremendously (agriculture in southern Alberta uses one-third less water today than it did 15 years ago), Flitton and farmers like him must still work hard for their water.
The biggest challenge today, however, is that Alberta is facing new claims on its water, leading to growing concerns about how to juggle the competing interests of water demand and environmental impact. In northern Alberta, for example, oil sands development has led to enormous increases in water consumption, with extraction of one barrel of oil requiring as much as four and a half barrels of water. (In 2005, oil companies alone were allocated 359 million square metres of water – twice the volume used by Calgary.) Water use for oil recovery currently accounts for approximately one per cent of the province’s surface water allocations (from rivers and lakes) and one quarter of provincial groundwater allocations. Furthermore, water slated for oil sands mining consumes 66 per cent of all allocations on the Athabasca River, which flows through Fort McMurray. Scientists also point out that, unlike municipal – and even industrial – use of water, where much of the water is returned after use and treatment, oil and gas recovery removes water permanently from the water cycle. Dire predictions are being voiced: unless oil sands development is slowed or new low-water-use technology put in place, irreparable destruction of the province’s water supply is inevitable.
In April 2006, renowned University of Alberta water scientist Dr. David Schindler added even more weight to these concerns with the release of a report documenting how climate change, combined with the province’s rapidly increasing population and industrial activity, is having a disastrous effect on overall water supply. Working with Edmonton researcher William Donahue, Schindler found that summer water flows – when human and ecological demands are highest – have dropped by 20 to 84 per cent in Alberta rivers in the last century. This is primarily because of damming, increased water use by cities and industry, evaporation and loss of snow packs due to global warming.
When increased industrial and agricultural waste is combined with lower stream flows, says Schindler, there is also a higher risk of waterborne diseases trickling from local taps. In 2002, for example, Alberta’s Agriculture and Food Department concluded that agricultural activity was a key factor in the appearance of two intestinal parasites, cryptosporidium and giardia, in Edmonton’s drinking water. Based on these and other sobering findings, Schindler warns that immediate and substantive steps need to be taken to curb growth and protect local water sources. As he puts it: “To a water expert, looking ahead is like the view from a locomotive, 10 seconds before the train wreck.”
Meanwhile, in southern Alberta, which contains only 12 per cent of the province’s water, communities are desperately looking at new ways to deliver and treat drinking water. Traditional water treatment plants have become too expensive to operate and maintain, and the provincial government has responded with plans to build a vast network of regional pipelines to serve these thirsty communities. But commercial and residential growth around Calgary has raised a red flag as to whether water diversion is a viable solution. And though many applaud the Alberta government’s promise to overhaul its approach to water management, others feel the real issue has long since been forgotten: the need to protect Alberta’s water for future generations by limiting growth and combatting climate change.
It is only in the last decade that water has become a major political issue in Alberta, sparked by a series of devastating droughts in the 1980s and ‘90s and fuelled by the extraordinary expansion of oil and gas exploration in the province’s northern oil sands. Add to this the seven deaths and hundreds of illnesses of 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario, due to drinking water contamination, and Albertans are demanding tougher water treatment standards from government. They’re also insisting on guarantees from agriculture interests, municipalities, commercial developers and industries such as mining, oil extraction and pulp and paper that water will remain plentiful. Scientists and environmentalists, armed with dismal forecasts of the effects of climate change, are equally vocal in their demands for both cleaner water and more stringent environmental protection standards.
In response to these pressures, in 2003 the Alberta government released Water for Life, a 10-year water management strategy considered the first of its kind in the world. The plan’s three goals: safe drinking water, healthy water ecosystems and a reliable water supply for economic development. Yet only four years after its inception, there is considerable debate about whether or not Water for Life is working; if its three pillars of sustainability can co-exist given Alberta’s powerhouse economy.
Water scientists such as Dr. James Byrne of the University of Lethbridge are skeptical of the politics behind Alberta’s water strategy. As Byrne indicates, “So far, Water for Life hasn’t done a heck of a lot – nice words, but nothing tangible.” Economic development is the real driving force behind the government’s mandate to protect water, says Byrne, and the protection of Alberta’s ecosystems has taken a backseat. And while Schindler agrees with the basic goals of Water for Life, he is also unsure they will be accomplished. “Water for Life is an excellent checklist,” but there’s no indication of what will be done with the checklist. More money and legislation, he says, are needed to ensure the strategy’s recommendations are actually implemented.
Interestingly, even the provincial government is questioning the viability of Water for Life. It recently commissioned an analysis of the plan, by the U.S.-based Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, which concludes that government needs to give the public greater representation on regional water councils. The study also notes that the demand for groundwater (which currently accounts for just three to four per cent of water use in the province) will increase tremendously in the coming years, but that the current monitoring and control of groundwater use is insufficient.
Others praise Water for Life. Bill Berzins, chair of the Bow River Basin Council (which advises the provincial government on water issues), says Water for Life has prompted greater public engagement in water management and that government now takes his advocacy group more seriously. Made up of representatives from industry, government and universities, as well as water-licence holders, water-basin councils in Alberta have existed for decades to give the public a say in how local water is protected and allocated. And though the decisions of water-basin councils still have no legal power, “we’ve seen a significant enhancement in our profile,” says Berzins. He points to the recent moratorium issued on water licences for the Bow and Oldman rivers, a recommendation he says came directly from the water councils for those rivers. The ban means any new developments – residential, commercial, industrial or agricultural – must now bargain for water by sharing existing licences, buying unused licenses or looking for water from other areas. As a result, the challenge of finding water licences to share has become a major consideration for communities and industry looking to grow, with many towns and villages struggling to meet the most basic need of all: clean drinking water.
Norman Baum is not a farmer, scientist or environmentalist, but he is intimate with the politics of water. As mayor of Carmangay, a village of 250 in Vulcan County, the 72-year-old retired air force pilot bears the responsibility of finding a new and stable source of drinking water for his constituents. “If we don’t have water, the town dies,” he says.
Ironically, there is plenty of water near Carmangay. The village overlooks the Little Bow River and has been drawing water from it for more than 90 years. But treating that water is a different matter. Built in the mid-1980s, the village’s water treatment plant is well below today’s standards. And while replacing the plant would cost $2.6 million (75 per cent of which would be paid for by the province), it’s finding – and paying the salary of – someone to run an upgraded plant that’s the biggest problem. Water-treatment operators have become so specialized and Alberta’s labour market is so tight that Baum estimates a tax hike of up to $900 a year per household to cover wages and chemical costs. When he shares this with Carmangay residents, jaws drop and eyes widen. The hike is just too much.
Water scientists such as James Byrne also caution that the bacteria in Alberta water are increasingly resistant even to standard plant treatments, including chlorination. Newer technologies such as slow-sand filtration are now needed to fully treat drinking water. However, when the provincial government studied Alberta’s water treatment plants three years ago, it found that one in five did not meet current treatment standards and that all would have difficulty upgrading to include the latest technologies. It recommended that 65 per cent of Alberta’s 534 water treatment plants be closed within 25 years and the communities they serve be plugged into regional water treatment systems.
The prospect of moving water ever-greater distances bewilders many, including those involved in the Vulcan-area pipeline projects (particularly given that Vulcan’s water treatment plant was recently upgraded and the nearby Nobleford plant will likely be renovated this year). Others support moving water between basins for drinking purposes. “The quantities of water aren’t that big,” says Byrne. And, as he notes, only 13 per cent of the water used in southern Alberta is for household use; by comparison, irrigation accounts for six times that amount. But nearly everyone – including Byrne and Schindler – finds water diversion problematic when it is used to support large-scale development. Rocky View municipality, for instance, has applied to divert water from the Red Deer River to serve a new mall, casino and horseracing track. The development is much closer to the Bow River, but no more water licences were available for the Bow.
“This could set a significant precedent,” says Byrne, who is concerned that allowing such a diversion will lead to unnecessary movement of water and a potentially dramatic impact on water ecosystems. Schindler goes even further, calling the movement of water for large-scale commercial development “frivolous,” especially when many communities are short of drinking water. “If that water were really critical to human development, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” says Schindler. “But when you look at a province that already has gambling as its number one source of income, even ahead of oil and gas, I have a tough time seeing that we ought to be sacrificing scarce water for things like that.”
As for Berzins, his take is that water shunted from the Red Deer River to an area traditionally served by the Bow is not a huge deal, given that both rivers flow into the South Saskatchewan River (making them part of the same overarching water basin). But he emphasizes that, in general, scientists and politicians differ on the suitability of diverting water for economic needs. “In the case of water, the line is often drawn on a political basis because there are no absolutes in terms of the watershed itself,” says Berzins. “The politics around this is a whole new game.”
The environmental issues are also new, adds Byrne. According to his research, southern Alberta’s Oldman River could drop by as much as 40 per cent between 2020 and 2050 as alpine snows melt and evaporate, and as winter precipitation falls increasingly as rain instead of snow – all due to global warming. Schindler, who has worked extensively with Byrne, is also troubled by rapidly shrinking glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, which supply almost all of the water for Alberta’s rivers. These glaciers have shrunk by about 25 per cent in the last century and are expected to disappear entirely. No one knows exactly when, though a 2003 U.S. Geological Survey study of Glacier National Park predicts that every one of its glaciers will disappear by 2030.
Along with other southern Alberta rivers, the Oldman also risks continued contamination from industrial and agricultural waste, such as livestock manure. Alberta currently raises approximately 6.4 million cows and almost two million hogs, numbers that could double in the next decade. In the county of Lethbridge alone there are an estimated 600,000 cows, outnumbering people six to one. “It’s ridiculous to concentrate all those animals in such a restricted area,” says Byrne. It’s also not just waste that is at issue. Livestock uses about a hundred times more water than cereal grains do for the same output of food.
The increase in Alberta’s human population is also causing concern among water analysts. Populations in both Calgary and Edmonton have more than doubled in the past 30 years, and now top one million in each. This boom places great pressure on both cities’ infrastructures, including water treatment and distribution. Although Calgary has reduced its water consumption to near Edmonton city levels (Calgary used 40 per cent more water than its northern neighbour in 2002), Schindler says its aging and sometimes leaky water pipes need upgrading. And as many urbanites flock to rural areas to retire or search for a simpler, less stressful life, towns and rural areas are facing similar challenges. In turn, scientists say Alberta’s population boom, combined with increased industrial activity and climate change, is driving up the incidence of drought. As Schindler notes, droughts will not only become more frequent in Alberta, they will continue to increase in severity. Similarly, a 2003 study by University of Regina scientists found that the amount of subhumid land in the prairies (land usually unsuitable for farming) could double by the middle of this century due to climate change. And with crop insurance payouts topping $2 billion for each drought, Schindler points out, the economic consequences of repeated droughts would be catastrophic.
For many Albertans, however, the public wrangling over water serves only to cloud the problems caused by Alberta’s rapid growth. “The majority of Albertans aren’t getting anything out of this boom anymore,” says Byrne. Rather “the province’s extreme housing prices and high cost of living are threatening most residents’ quality of life.” The dilemma, he adds, is that just as Alberta’s water management plans divert water, they also divert attention from the real issue. Instead of settling for short-term solutions, such as water diversion, urges Byrne, we should focus on protecting our water sources. “In other words, don’t treat bad water, protect good water.”
Byrne’s call for action is echoed by the Rosenberg study, which strongly recommends that government pay more attention to how climate change, along with shifts in population, technology and industry, will affect water levels in Alberta over time. The research community in particular must be involved, says Byrne. As David Hill, executive director of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, notes: Alberta has the most efficient irrigation system in North America, yet one-third of southern Alberta farmers do not have access to sophisticated irrigation equipment. Farmers also bear the expense for technologies such as centre-pivot irrigation, to the tune of $100,000 a unit. As for water being used for oil extraction, Schindler points to the need for water fees. With production expenditures continuing to climb, surely industry will reduce the amount of water consumed to cut costs, he suggests. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, people will look for ways to use less water.”
For Gary Flitton, however, the approach every Albertan needs to take in regard to the province’s water crisis is something farmers have lived by for generations: “We’re just tenants on the land, and we’re responsible for looking after it.” Just as farmers have learned how to manage water during dry seasons and conserve during wet ones, the rest of Alberta must learn to do the same.