MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY – The provincial government announced Wednesday it is initiating the largest water sharing effort undertaken in Alberta since 2001 to deal with an expected drought this year.
This winter, snowpack is below average, rivers are at record low levels and multiple reservoirs remain well below capacity, according to the province.
Starting Feb. 1 the province’s Drought Command Team will be bringing together major water licence holders in the province to negotiate water sharing agreements.
Water licence holders will be asked to voluntarily take less water in order to ensure that there is water available for as many users as possible, said Rebecca Schulz, minister of Environment and Protected Areas, in a letter going out to about 25,000 water licence holders.
The Drought Command Team will begin negotiations with major water licence holders to strike water-sharing agreements in the Red Deer River, Bow River and Old Man River basins.
If a severe drought occurs, these agreements would see major users use less water to help others downstream.
The extent to which the average Albertan will be expected to reduce water usage in the event of a severe drought this summer compared with the province’s heaviest agricultural, industrial and commercial consumers remains to be seen.
Schulz spoke with the Albertan on Tuesday, Jan. 30 to provide responses to follow-up questions about a letter she prior to the end of 2023 had sent out to municipalities urging local leaders to begin drafting water-shortage plans.
And when it comes to water consumption, the average Albertan’s overall usage also pales in comparison to the major users.
“The vast majority – almost half of the water used in our province – goes to agriculture and irrigation,” said Schulz during a phone interview.
According to provincial statistics, agriculture and irrigation combined amount to 46.6 per cent of Alberta’s water allocations, while oil and gas make up an even 10 per cent. Commercial and cooling accumulatively make up 23.4 per cent, while municipalities account for 12 per cent.
The Albertan asked the minister what kinds of restrictions the government plans to impose upon far greater consumers from oil and gas extraction projects as well as agricultural producers and even other water-dependent industries including recreation, such as golf courses and huge wave pools in the cities or even little water parks in small towns.
“That’s exactly what we’re working through right now,” she said.
“Starting before the holidays, we were reaching out to all of the major water users to let them know of the drought situation that we’re in and how serious it is,” she said.
“Specifically, we asked municipalities back in December to essentially work through how much water within their licence they’re actually consuming, what they might be able to do in terms of water conservation,” she said.
“And we are also reaching out and asking the same of our irrigators, agricultural producers and other major water users. What that allows us to do, is to have those users pull together what their drought plans would be so that we could have these conversations about what types of water sharing agreements we can enter into.”
Schulz also mentioned telephone town halls that were set to start later the same day she spoke with the Albertan in open sessions where all major water users were invited to attend.
“Why this is important, is that we tend to take a collaborative approach,” she said.
“We’ve been in droughts like this before. I know it’s been a number of years since we’ve seen one this significant, but typically we’ve been able to come together in a collaborative way with all of our major water users and use their ideas on how we can ensure that all of the users have the water they need despite the drought situation we’re in,” she said.
The last time Alberta faced such severe and persistent drought conditions – largely in the southeastern part of the province as well as southwestern Saskatchewan – was during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression era back in the 1930s. At the time, Alberta’s population was about 772,800, according to the provincial government’s website drawing data from Statistics Canada.
But today, the province’s population, which continues to grow, is more than 4.4 million. And on average, people today also consume far greater volumes of water than their counterparts from last century.
According to statistics compiled by the City of Calgary, residents on a daily basis use up an average of roughly seven cubic metres, or 7,000 litres of water per month.
A further breakdown of consumption reveals watering lawns eclipses all other uses, with the average going through 950 litres per day during the summer months.
The next highest water-consuming practices include the use of appliances such as top-loading washing machines at 180 litres, front-loading washing machines at 65 litres.
Non-low flow toilet flushing amounts to about 100 litres while low-flow devices substantially reduce that amount by more than two thirds down to 30 litres. Dishwashers on average use about 35 litres per load, while a typical bathtub goes through 80 litres, as compared with 40-60 litres for a five-minute shower using either a low-flow or regular showerhead.
“I have been telling people right now, just for the everyday average Albertan especially as we look at the drought situation we’re in, absolutely start looking at your water intake and look at how you can conserve water in your own home,” said Schulz.
“Last summer, lots of people quit watering their lawns when they started to hear about the drought situation we’re in and started receiving messages from their municipalities. Right now, our message would be: conserve water to help your neighbours downstream.”
The Albertan also asked the minister why government communications only mention the El Niño effect with no specific references to climate change. Considering 2023 shattered global records by such large margins that even many climatologists were surprised, she said when asked why is there no mention of climate change in the government’s communications, “We have an emissions reduction and energy development plan that was introduced last spring.
“We know that the climate is changing and has been for a number of years. And right now, this year specifically, we’re seeing an El Niño situation that we haven’t seen in I think seven or eight years,” she said, adding the messaging is “targeted to the exact situation that we’re seeing right now. But absolutely, these are things we talk about.”
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