By Letter to the Editor on August 19, 2021.
I agree with MLA Nathan Neudorf’s opening statement in his Aug. 13 column from the Legislature that “in southern Alberta water truly is one of our most precious resources, and its safety, protection, and allocation are a key priority for all of us.” Unfortunately the rest of his column muddies the waters.
The column fails to clarify that the Oldman River Basin Water Allocation Order (Order) its name does not apply to the entire Oldman River Basin but only to a reserve of 11,000 acre feet of water upstream of the Oldman reservoir from the upper Oldman, Castle and Crowsnest rivers. Water was reserved under the Order in 2003, just prior to closure of the entire basin to further water licences, as compensation to municipalities in the headwaters for flooding of agricultural land and other impacts from construction of the Oldman River dam.
MLA Neudorf is correct that approximately 84 percent of water reserved under the Order is not yet licensed. The column alleges a “perceived inequality” given that industrial users can access only 1.3 per cent of the water, all of which is currently used, and irrigation users can access 85 per cent, only 14 per cent of which is being used.
This situation is the result of choices made by residents in headwaters municipalities for the best use of the allocation available to them. Government’s proposal to set aside 20 per cent for “aquatic environmental needs” is tokenism and lacks a scientific rationale.
Current water shortage advisories on the Upper Oldman River, Pincher Creek and Castle River indicate that, regardless of purpose, allowing withdrawal under the Order of additional hundreds of acre feet of water each year from headwater tributaries, as would be required for proposed coal mines, will be problematical.
Contrary to MLA Neudorf’s assertion that “a significant portion of Oldman River water has not been accessed over the past 30 years”, the 9,229 acre-feet of water remaining unallocated under the order is insignificant given that two hundred times that amount – 800,000 million acre feet – is licensed for use in the Oldman River Basin.
Approximately two per cent of allocation within the entire basin is for commercial and industrial purposes and three per cent for municipal purposes while over 85 per cent is for irrigation agriculture. In dry years such as the current one almost the entire agricultural allocation – 60 per cent of the mean natural flow at the mouth of the Oldman River – is being diverted to irrigate hay and annual crops. Mr. Neudorf does not represent this situation as an inequality but instead touts the “$815 million investment to increase our irrigation system” in the Oldman and Bow River basins. Thirty per cent of the investment is a provincial grant and 50 per cent is a loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
What flow is left for fish and other aquatic organisms and for the health of rivers when current water licences are accommodated? According to the South Saskatchewan River Basin Water Management Plan, our rivers must get by on 45 per cent or less of natural flow in drier-than-average years such as this one, not with ecological justification but because water licences totalling over two-thirds of mean natural flow had been granted before a decision was made to stop issuing licences in 2006. This situation could be described as over-allocation, a failure to define science-based environmental flows and proactively set limits on water diversions.
Climate change is likely to exacerbate risk of shortage for fish and maintaining water quality and riparian habitats, not to mention for junior licence holders in the Oldman River Basin.
In addition, there is a lack of monitoring and enforcement of licensed diversions to ensure the current less-than-satisfactory objectives for instream flows are being met.
A recent report by four Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, including the Oldman Watershed Council, concludes “More needs to be done to restore and protect the long-term health of the aquatic and riparian environmentâ€¦water supply for economic growth, municipal growth and other needs will need to be matched with aquatic environment requirements.”
Mr. Neudorf applauds efficiency improvements in irrigation and I agree. However hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding has enabled these improvements over several decades and I question his implicit assumption that all of the saved water should go to expanding irrigated acres. It reflects a bias that water is only “precious” if it can be used to grow a crop – but water flowing in a river has value also.
The story of how irrigation agriculture developed in southern Alberta is a complex one, as is the story of how those decisions affect rivers today. Public scrutiny of proposed irrigation expansion is obscured behind a murky veil of confidential deals with irrigation districts and the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
If “water is our most precious resource and its safety, protection, and allocation are a key priority for all of us” then I suggest government initiate a public conversation about the impacts of proposed irrigation expansion and about reserving some of the saved water (paid for out of the public purse) to sustain our rivers and for society’s future needs.
Simplistic and muddy narratives such as Mr. Neudorf’s do not help find clarity on decisions that will sustain irrigation and other uses of water as well as the health of our rivers.
Southern Alberta Group for Environment