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.