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Sundre begins planning for possible 2024 drought

Alberta Environment and Protected Areas minister advising municipalities that action may be required to fully prepare for possible severe drought this year
MVT Sundre Town Office
File photo/MVP Staff

SUNDRE – The municipal council has directed administration to develop proactive drought protection and prevention measures including a water shortage plan in preparation for a possible drought this year.

The Town of Sundre administration has also been tasked with looking into the possibility of introducing some kind of rebate or subsidy program for residents interested in conservation upgrades such as rain barrels as well as timers for lawn and garden watering systems.

As Alberta braces for the soberingly distinct possibility of extreme drought conditions this summer, the minister of Environment and Protected Areas has asked municipalities to begin drafting up water shortage plans in the event of a worst-case scenario that leads to provincially-imposed restrictions.

Council discussed the issue in-depth on Jan. 8 during the first regular meeting of the new year. Coun. Paul Isaac, who informed administration in advance that he could not attend, was the only absence.

Providing some background information, Linda Nelson, chief administrative officer, said correspondence had been received from Rebecca Schulz, minister of Environment and Protected Areas, who “is advising municipalities and municipal leaders that action may be required to fully prepare for severe drought in 2024.”

Alberta has a five-stage ranking system for drought severity in its water management plan, with Stage 5 presenting a province-wide emergency.

“Currently, we are at Stage 4,” said Nelson.

The CAO went on to outline some of the proactive steps the municipality has already taken over time in an effort to reduce water waste, including an underground utility assessment study that identified priority projects in the capital plan as well as leak-detection equipment purchased years ago that has proved effective at locating leaks.

“The Highway 27 underground project, which replaces pipes that we believe are up to 50 years old, has identified at least two major leaks which will be repaired with the completion of this project,” she said, adding the recently approved 10-year capital plan includes numerous other major upgrades to underground infrastructure that is expected to substantially reduce water lost to leakage.

Additionally, a water conservation bylaw was adopted in 2019. However, Nelson suggested initiating a review process to update the bylaw since the document is already five years old.

Further, she said the municipality will have to draft a water shortage plan in coordination with provincial officials, and also recommended distributing public information sheets outlining water conservation tips, such as a brochure mailed out in utility bills.

The environment minister’s two-page letter, which does not mention climate change or the many heat records that were shattered around the world in 2023 – now officially by far the hottest year since records began – states that “several water basins reached critical drought conditions due to low rainfall and high temperatures.”

The situation has been exacerbated by the first global El Niño phenomenon in seven years, Schulz wrote.

“It’s causing less snow and rain, along with higher temperatures, heightening the potential for significant drought into spring and summer 2024, particularly in southern Alberta,” she said.

The minister also outlined what the provincial government is doing, including but not limited to establishing a drought command team as well as working to refine an early draft of the 2024 Drought Emergency Plan, striking an advisory panel, and to initiate drought modelling efforts that will help “determine how to maximize the province’s water supply.”

She added action at the municipal level will also be required, and outlined four steps to take:

• initiate efforts to monitor water supply infrastructure proactively, paying particular attention to water intake relative to water levels;

• begin a review of the terms of your municipality’s water licence so you are aware of any conditions that may limit your ability to withdraw water during a drought;

• alert municipal water managers to prepare to be engaged with officials from the Drought Command Team, should conditions within your municipal water licence need to be triggered; and

• develop a water shortage plan so your municipality is prepared to respond if water availability decreases.

The minister also said the government is “asking all water users to start planning now to use less water in 2024."

Coun. Chris Vardas started the roundtable discussion and said conversations about water conservation will be ongoing over the coming years as times continue to change. Speaking against the idea of scheduling specific days and times when people are allowed to water lawns, Vardas suggested instead looking into the possibility of helping offset the cost for those who are interested in installing timers.

“If everybody put a timer on their watering system in their yards, it only waters it from this time to this time for an hour, an hour and a half. That’s where we would conserve,” he said. “If you look at the data, anybody that’s on that kind of system, they conserve a lot more than the average bear.”

Coun. Jaime Marr said the government’s website outlines numerous tips to save water that could also be further promoted by the municipality along with a general advisory about the situation.

“I thought maybe in our utility bill, we could just sort of pre-emptively let people know that we’re looking at this; that this could be coming to the forefront. We’re already at level 4,” said Marr, adding she also supports the idea of timers.

“Although I think if we’re in a water shortage and hit a (Stage) 5, there’s going to be no watering lawns anyway. But I do worry about gardens, because a lot of people have raised garden beds,” she said, mentioning water-catching methods like rain barrels are also among the government’s tips.

However, while Coun. Todd Dalke said he agreed with province-wide conservation efforts, he pointed out Sundre sits on the Red Deer River.

“I’ll be that guy. Aren’t we glad we live in Sundre ’cause the water comes out of the ground by itself?” said Dalke, expressing a reluctance to impose any additional burdens on residents, not just by way of restricting water use but also asking them to consider buying timers or barrels.

Nelson cautioned council that in the event the province announces a Stage 5 drought, the government would enact the Emergency Water Management plan, which could affect the municipality’s water licence, potentially even restricting it by up to 60 per cent.

“We may not have a choice. So, it’s good for us to get started right now,” she said.

Coun. Owen Petersen recommended a municipally-led educational campaign and also agreed with the idea of timers and barrels.

“I would even be willing to entertain the idea of the municipality subsidizing, somehow, people’s rain barrels or timers or (other) things to actually conserve water,” said Petersen.

Also speaking in favour of timers, Coun. Connie Anderson warned the idea might not be popular.

“I think you’re going to find in Sundre, people are going to say, ‘We sit on water.’ And they’re not going to like these ideas at all,” said Anderson.

Vardas recognized the municipality’s geographically fortunate location that – for now at least – provides an abundance of water.

“But if there’s no ice caps on the mountains, there’s no water trickling down,” said Vardas.

“You’re right, we are on water and we got plenty of it. But one day, we might not,” he said.

Through conversations the councillor said he’s had with friends who work in fracking, Vardas said, “They’re getting stressed a little bit too. Because even when it comes to fracking, they got to draw water from somewhere. And they’re saying there’s barely any water.”

Meanwhile, he said the municipality sells plenty of its treated water to fracking operations rather than drawing grey water from the lagoon.

“I don’t know why we don’t entertain that,” he said.

Nelson agreed that using treated water for fracking isn’t ideal, but added that as per the municipality’s water licence, Sundre is required to release a high percentage of treated effluent back into the river.

“If we could use water from the lagoon and subtract that off the amount that we’re putting back into the river, I agree that would be amazing. But that would take a provincial approval,” she said.

Mayor Richard Warnock said municipalities south of Calgary have been attempting to address water shortages for the past couple of years, and argued Sundre should be prepared to inform its residents what they can and cannot do if the province imposes restrictions.

Beyond the existing bylaw, the municipality should also have a colour-coded, four-stage strategy, said Warnock, who also sits on Alberta Municipalities’ Sustainability and Environment Committee, which is working on a water conservation policy for the whole province.

“They are concerned in the north as well,” he said, adding last year's record fire season has emphasized the critical importance of maintaining adequate water reserves to battle wildfires.

Ultimately, Dalke moved to direct administration to start drafting plans for proactive drought measures with further updates to come.

Speaking in favour, Petersen said one of the municipality’s strategic pillars is to be good environmental stewards and added that focusing on water conservation efforts helps not only Sundre, but also the many other Albertans who live downstream of the Red Deer.

“I don’t think it’s prudent for us to just sit here and think how great it is to water our lawns and forget that there’s a huge amount of this province that relies on this water. If we do our small part, I think that’s really important,” he said.

Dalke’s motion carried unanimously.

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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