October 26th, 2021

Water management a key issue in municipal elections

By Letter to the Editor on October 9, 2021.

Candidates for election to municipal office in southern Alberta are well advised to consider the future of water use for the communities they represent and for the environment. A summer of rapidly melting glaciers, extreme heat, little to no rainfall, and low river flow resulted in water shortage advisories, declared states of agricultural emergency, cut-off of water to irrigators, and curtailed recreation experiences for canoeists and fishers. More drought stress is predicted as climate changes. Nonetheless work is proceeding on the “single largest irrigation expansion in Alberta’s history” in the absence of public consultation and environmental impact assessment.
The $815 million agreement among eight irrigation districts, the UCP government and the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to expand irrigation agriculture by 15 per cent in the Bow and Oldman river basins was announced in December 2020 as a done deal. The project will construct a few hundred kilometres of pipelines (mostly replacing existing canals) and four new or expanded reservoirs (one that is undisclosed), and add 206,000 acres of new irrigation, the location currently unknown. Construction of pipelines and land acquisition for reservoirs are already underway.
Water for the expansion is purported to come from water use efficiency improvements within existing licences. Even so, the project is an intensification of water use in basins that are already over allocated, closed to new water licences, and lack effective measures to protect the health of rivers.
Given that the irrigation sector holds licences to withdraw over half of mean natural annual flow and over three-quarters of licenced water allocation in the Bow and Oldman River basins, major expansion has ramifications for current water users and for potential future uses of water as well as for accommodating Indigenous water rights.
Environmental interests are asking for impact assessment including cumulative effects assessment and basin-wide instream flow modelling to understand the implications of the project for health of rivers as well as for native grasslands and species at risk, including lake sturgeon.
There are economic sustainability questions as well. Does it make sense for the economic future of southern Alberta to put all of our water resource eggs in one basket, that of irrigation agriculture?
The prairies are a semi-arid environment and given predictions of climate change, how sustainable is expansion of an industry reliant on abundant water to grow crops and process food, the products of which are mostly for export?
We do not want to repeat the experience of communities in the southwest United States currently subject to disruption from deep cuts in water supply because of prolonged drought that has diminished the Colorado River. It is important we learn from that experience and plan for resiliency in managing our precious and limited water resources.
Municipal elections provide opportunities for candidates to identify key issues and listen to the views of constituents about those issues in preparation for making informed choices once in office.
The future of water management in southern Alberta is a key issue.
Informed, collaborative conversations among a broad array of interests are needed now, before this major irrigation expansion project proceeds further and climate change forces a reckoning.
Cheryl Bradley

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The writer must have her cabin.

Mrs. Kidd (she/her)

Mr. buckwheat: Ms Bradley, a well-know advocate for sane and reasonable environmental policy, has construct a respectful, thoughtful, and evidence-based argument. If there is anything in this letter with which you wish to take issue, I encourage you to do the same.


Funny how SAGE can come up with this issue before a municipal election. I can’t think of a single soul that needs reminding these days about water and watersheds. Despite it being a provincial matter the most any candidate can do is to write or back a letter to the province in support. We have done a wonderful job of water management in the Palliser Triangle. Massive agricultural advances through water management has taken the area described as “not fit for human habitation” to where we are today. Covid must be over. PS. I have read her missives.

Mrs. Kidd (she/her)

Mr. buckweat, you have made a good effort, but there are a few weaknesses in your rebuttal. Let’s review.
(1)  You write: “Funny how SAGE can come up with this issue before a municipal election.” First, SAGE has been interested in water management and related issues for as long as it has existed and second, can you think of a better time to raise an issue other than during an election?
(2)  You write: “I can’t think of a single soul that needs reminding these days about water and watersheds.” I wish that were true, but pay attention to how many people around the city use water. Many lawns are watered and fertilized on a regular basis, meant to emulate those found in parts of Canada with much higher average precipitation, and ornamental gardens are filled with non-native water-consumptive plants. From this behaviour alone it seems reasonable to conclude that some people (and perhaps many) are not aware of water-related issues.

And one more thing, when referring to people you should use the word “who” not “that”. We use “that” in reference to non-humans — as in “that dog ate my homework” — or objects.

(3)  You write: “Despite it being a provincial matter the most any candidate can do is to write or back a letter to the province in support.” Absolutely it is a provincial matter, but there are many things a City Council can do in support of more environmentally-sound water management. Council can certainly lobby the Provincial Government, but it can do things locally such as incentivize installation of low-flow toilets and showerheads, or plant more native plants in parks and open spaces.

(4)  You write: “We have done a wonderful job of water management in the Palliser Triangle. Massive agricultural advances through water management has taken the area described as “not fit for human habitation” to where we are today.” We have certainly done a lot from an engineering perspective, much of it with financial assistance from the Federal Government prior to the 1970s, and water management has supported a substantial agricultural economy in the region. However, the institutional arrangements around water management and irrigation agriculture, and the outcomes produced by those arrangements, are not issue free. As a case in point, I recommend that you read the Final Report by the Oldman Dam Environmental Assessment Panel from the early 1990s. Its conclusions are rather sobering. And just imagine how much more financially productive irrigation agriculture would be if water was metered. If water was metered – which is something no politician would advocate – then irrigators would pump water on higher value crops. It’s basic economics.

(5)  Finally, you write: “Covid must be over.” That’s a non sequitur.

Last edited 15 days ago by Mrs. Kidd (she/her)

Who was the explorer to southern Alberta over a hundred years ago who said this area was desert? And therefore it was his opinion that nothing would grow here. Our water supply has been managed quite well but it needs to be monitored,I agree.


That would be Capt. John Palliser, after whom the region known as Palliser’s Triangle is named. Other members of the Palliser Expedition were James Hector, who later played a central role in the development of New Zealand agriculture (especially dairying), and Thomas Blakiston after whom Blakiston Creek and the Blackiston Range are named.

Southern Albertan

It is true that Palliser designated this area as a desert. Many areas of southern Alberta should, not, in hind sight, have been plowed/tilled. The native grass, ‘prairie wool.’ was perfect for this area.


A second expedition was mounted at the same time as the Palliser Expedition. That one was led by Henry Youle Hind. In 1857 he explored the Red River Valley region and the next year he traveled further west. He didn’t make it into the heart and most arid parts of Palliser’s Triangle, and so was able to submit a more optimistic report on the area’s potential for European colonization of region. Not surprisingly, it was the Hind report that drove colonization policy to a greater extent than Palliser’s.

Last edited 13 days ago by TJohnston

It’s wonderful to read an informative letter.

Expanding irrigation is plain nuts in a basin closed to new licenses, with diminishing flows due to climate change, and with greater water demands from growing population and indistry (not to mention the water promised by the UCP government for coal mining).

But this government is doing it again: secret agreements, no public engagement, changing laws to clear the way, allowing irrigation districts to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars untransparently. What a mess!

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