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Alberta government to begin water-sharing negotiations amid risk of severe drought

Click to play video: 'Water-sharing negotiations begin Thursday for drought-stricken Alberta'
Water-sharing negotiations begin Thursday for drought-stricken Alberta
WATCH: The province is beginning talks to strike new water-sharing agreements in Alberta. Sarah Offin has more on potential impacts. – Jan 31, 2024

The Alberta government is making moves to mitigate the risk of severe drought in the province this year.

Alberta’s Drought Command Team has been given the go-ahead to begin negotiations Thursday with water licence holders to secure water-sharing agreements.

Alberta relies on melting snow and rain for its water. This year, the winter snowpack is below average, rivers are at record low levels and multiple reservoirs remain well below capacity, the province said in a news release Wednesday morning.

Due to all of these factors, the Alberta government has given its Drought Command Team authorization to begin negotiations with major water licence holders to strike water-sharing agreements in the Red Deer River, Bow River and Old Man River basins.

The goal is to “secure significant and timely reductions in water use,” Alberta Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz said in a news release. “This effort will be the largest water-sharing negotiation to have ever occurred in Alberta’s history.”

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There are 25,000 organizations and businesses in Alberta that hold licences for 9.5 billion cubic metres of water — enough to fill 3.8 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Lance Colby is the mayor of Carstairs and the chair of the Mountainview Regional Water Services Commission, which provides water to several central Alberta communities including Carstairs, Bowden, Olds, Didsbury, Innisfail and Crossfield.

He said the commission started getting ahead of things earlier this year when they learned that the government was preparing for a possible drought in Alberta.

“How are we going to get ahead of this? What can we do to be prepared?” Colby said.

Board members, CAOs and mayors met on Jan. 26 and immediately moved to advise member communities that water provided by the commission should not be used for oil and gas extraction moving forward.

Communities were also asked to provide the commission with what their water use is, what bulk water sales are and what’s being used for critical infrastructure.

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“Where can we cut back? Each town has a water plan anyway for shortages. But you have heavy industrial in some places, you have hospitals, you have seniors lodges and commercial,” Colby said.

“We wanted to know what they have and what basically the daily use would be.”

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The commission’s next meeting is on Feb. 5, where Colby hopes a government representative will be present to discuss what the province’s plan is to deal with possible drought moving forward.

“We’re just worried about our towns… and how to cut back on the water use if we’re asked,” Colby said.

“It creates an uncertainty because you don’t know how much water you’re going to have to cut back and who’s going to be affected by it.

“Those are the things we have to worry about and we have to really look at.”

Click to play video: 'Southern Alberta food producers trying to avoid water shortages amid drought'
Southern Alberta food producers trying to avoid water shortages amid drought

Dave Bishop is Region 1 director of Alberta Grains. He also farms in the Barons area of southern Alberta. While he’s hopeful the snowpack will increase in order to fill up reservoirs, he’s worried about a potentially devastating year.

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“We haven’t had much snow and that’s what we rely on for irrigation is our snowpack that comes out of the hills. It’s not good right now,” Bishop said.

Not knowing how much water they’re going to have will affect cropping plans, and how much farmers are going to be able to put down.

“We will not be putting all of our fertilizer down like we usually do, just in case we don’t have water because we wouldn’t be able to utilize it, we would just be wasting our money.”

Irrigation, which is relied on heavily in dry southern Alberta, may also be affected.

“If we’re not able to irrigate, we take a huge financial hit and risk on our production, on our farm, our livelihood,” Bishop explained. “It’s what allows us to farm. It’s our guaranteed crop most years.”

He said water shortages could have a huge ripple effect on the economy.

“It could be really devastating for southern Alberta because value-added in the ag side is a huge dollar figure. It employs thousands of people and if we don’t have water, our crops won’t be able to go to the processors, the processors may not have water to process it,” he said.

“It could be pretty devastating… it’s stressful.

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This is the first time such negotiations have taken place since 2001, according to the province.

In a letter to water licence holders, Schulz asked them to voluntarily take less water in order to ensure there is water available for as many users as possible.

“Drought is something our farmers and ranchers have experienced before,” said Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation RJ Sigurdson.

“Based on that experience, our irrigators and agricultural producers have done an amazing job to manage their operations during tough times. I also want to be clear, that Alberta producers are leaders in water conservation, environmental stewardship, and I am proud of the work they do. As always, Alberta’s government is doing everything we can to help producers impacted by drought, and our producers have always stepped up to work together to build solutions that are in the interest of the entire province.”

The province said in the past, individuals and groups have worked together to share available water to help manage water shortages. There are currently 51 water shortage advisories in place in Alberta.

The province hopes the voluntary water-sharing agreements will be completed before March 31.

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