March 1st, 2024

Running on empty: a look at water in southern Alberta


By Lethbridge Herald on December 15, 2023.

LORNE FITCH

There need to be periodic reminders that the frontier aspect of Alberta is over and we need to grow up. Unlimited space and inexhaustible resources are no more. Perhaps last on the list to be recognized is water, especially for southern Alberta. The Alberta government seems incoherently reluctant to make Albertans aware of the real possibility of an impending water crisis.

Ironically, for an arid landscape we still seem stuck on the perspective that water is abundant and growth is not limited by the supply of it. 

In reality water has always been in short supply. We have been lulled into a state of complacency with the marvels of dams, reservoirs and canals. These have given us an impression of abundance. Despite all of this engineering infrastructure we are still just one or two years of low snowmelt away from water shortages.

Climate change isn’t our future—experts remind us it is our present. Declining river flows, persistent drought, increased temperatures, heat domes, greater evaporation and more wicked weather events signal our world has changed and has done so irrevocably. The frontier of easy water, reliable water, abundant water and engineered water is at an end. 

This is not the end of our world but it’s time to be smarter, more conscious of the changes and better stewards of what water is available. This might start with recognition that irrigation expansion is a dream that cannot be fulfilled. Even if we completely drain our rivers and renege on interprovincial water sharing agreements this dream cannot be sustained. We can’t make more water, building more storage is an expensive, zero-sum game and any temporary advantage is at the mercy of climate change.

Major John Wesley Powell, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed the arid western states in the late 1800s and provided advice on a sustainable path for development. In answer to schemes to dam rivers in the region he prophetically stated, “All the waters of all the arid lands will eventually be taken from their natural channels. And there is not sufficient water to supply the land.” Indeed, massive reservoirs on the Colorado River and tributaries, many with shrunken pools of water, have not allowed the region to avoid climate change.  

Doing more of what we have always done — more dams, more reservoirs, more irrigated acres — is navigating our future through the rear view mirror. There are other forward thinking pathways that have more promise. 

To begin to see those other pathways requires the discussion to occur outside of the boardrooms of the irrigation sector and their agency supporters.  Water, its uses, and future is of concern to all Albertans, not just one sector. A sector that is so reliant on the public purse needs to be more receptive to ideas from Albertans outside the irrigation fold.

To begin, we need to deal with the chronic overallocation of water, a historical artifact of the frontier. Several southern Alberta rivers are dying from lack of water—this needs to be dealt with through the science of instream flow need studies. It will also require those with water licenses to surrender some of their water for the public good, to restore ecosystem health in our rivers.

Serious questions about crop choices under irrigation need to be addressed, especially thirsty ones like alfalfa. More efficient irrigation systems, reduction in evaporation from open canals (which is being addressed with pipelines) and water metering offer opportunities to continue irrigation agriculture through prolonged periods of water scarcity.

All of us need to conserve water and not waste it. Urban dwellers might start by ditching their thirsty Kentucky bluegrass lawns in favour of something more native and drought tolerant. As individuals, families, corporations and governments, we are in this together and everyone needs to do their part.

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is due for a review in 2024. This is where we can and should come together to better plan our water future. If we can appreciate this is a multi-sector initiative, at a watershed scale, there are opportunities to better adapt to a changing world. 

Thinking at a watershed scale will focus attention on the headwaters, where all our water originates. Intact forests trap, store and slowly release water to all of us. These are the ultimate reservoirs for water. 

If we continue on a path of industrial scale, clearcut logging this will dramatically affect the hydrologic response of our headwaters. 

Faster runoff, more flooding and less water later in the season will severely hamper our ability to effectively use our existing reservoir capacity.

 If we don’t start connecting the dots between the state of the watershed and downstream water availability, this will exacerbate drought conditions, ability to irrigate, provide domestic water supplies and affect economic sustainability.

We have operated too long with siloed approaches to water. With the frontier of resource abundance behind us, change is required.When you’re running on empty it doesn’t matter how big your gas tank is or how many reservoirs there are — it also doesn’t matter how much your water license says you can divert. You might think change isn’t necessary but neither is survival.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

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Southern Albertan

Agreed! Thank you for this! Again, this Smith UCP/TBA government should be making this southern Alberta drought front and center. Are the irrigated farming folks, who make up a large portion of the UCP/TBA voting base going to just say, ” oh that’s ok, we can get along without water?” Perhaps what the Smith UCP/TBA are afraid of, is that maybe, nothing could bring down a government faster than a drought emergency which has not had proactive consideration.
Are the UCP/TBA forces going to consult with experts such as Lorne Fitch?
Are the Smith UCP/TBA going to continue to allow clear cutting and open pit coal mining in our watershed areas? Does this take priority over all of the millions of us downstream? Unimaginable……

SophieR

Good questions, SA. There are a certain group of science-skeptical people who believe that by avoiding change everything will stay the same. Mr. Fitch tells us otherwise in this excellent letter.

It is time for Mr. Neudorf to address water in Southern Alberta with more than industry at the table. Hoping and praying for water is not governance and it ignores the scientific evidence that water is becoming more scarce (and at risk of greater pollution, given this government’s penchant for exploitation at all costs).

buckwheat

Was coffee shopping to day and speaking with someone who has contact with someone who works up and around the old man river dam. Apparently and I don’t know how recent the reading was taken, the flow of the river after the dam is 15 c/m per second. Another measurement at Lethbridge before the weir reads 11 c/m per second. Can you clarify this info and if so any ideas as to where 4 c/m of water may be going as there doesn’t seem to be any tributaries or lake diversions between Leth and the dam.

Last edited 2 months ago by buckwheat
old school

How many communities take water from the river between dam and Lethbridge? How accurate is the flow reading at both points is my concern. The changing water situation is nothing new. Prior to the old man dam being built, thanks Ralf Klein by the way, there were many summers I could ride my bike across the Old Man. Ups and downs on river flow aren’t really anything new. We have farmed with limited water before on account of low snow pack. We have also pumped water off our fields in spring because of excess moisture. S.A. Would like gov. officials to consult Mr. Fitch. He may have an educated opinion about the water and the weather, but he has zero, yes zero effect on the reality of the situation. The dirty thirties were near 100 years ago . Some “ experts” with educated opinions suppose on a 100 year cycle. Well, here we are! Dry again for a while. I’m not ancient yet , but I’ve seen many dry/ wet cycles go by. Neither is ideal, Climate change is a fact of life. In the 70’s we were told of an impending ice-age. Didn’t happen,btw. The scientists, predecessors of Mr. Fitch, highly educated, knew it was gonna happen. It didn’t. Crap ,man, they had to crawl under a rock when they realized global warming was happening! Wow, global warming turned into “ climate change”. Crawl out from under yer rock, you were not “ wrong” after all! Now hot, cold, wind, earthquake, snow, rain, atmospheric rivers, ( whatever that means ,new frightening term for rain it seems), fog, snow, warm weather, etc, is blown out of proportion due to, of course, climate change! Also UCP policies. NDP would have had the weather under control by now if they were still in power! Would have cost us a lot of tax $$$$$ ,I suppose.But Snottly ,I’m sure, would have bought us all impeccable weather and water.

buckwheat

Old School. Same boat as you, different are of the province. Have seen and observed all the changes you describe. Water volumes ebb and flow and change continually. Looking for the letter writings answer on why the difference. LIke the sarcasm at the end. Nothing a tax won’t fix.

biff

same boat? – better be on wheels because you won’t be floating very far

SophieR

Lucky, in Alberta, we can replace science with people who dip their hands in the soil and sniff the west wind to decide if we can expand irrigation by 200,000 acres.

biff

haha! (yes, this laugh at risk of more negs piling on to anything i enter in this forum) haha!
like the cliched detectives from old vice squad movies and tv: dip in finger, taste, and determine exactly how pure is the heroin…in this case, the level of moisture.
wondering if old and buck have talked with farmers in region: the dams and flow of waters are well down in the south, and about just as bad to the west. the best answer is likely for the ucp to declare water – like their idea of pensions – to be alberta run and operated…what, is water already managed by ucp?!

Older-Than-Old-School

A “100 year cycle.” Are you really that much of a nit wit? A “100 year event” means that in any given year the probability of an event of that magnitude occurring is 1 in 100. Such an event could happen in any given year.

Now, here’s an idea. If you don’t believe me, I have some bottom land outside Fort Macleod, in the flood plain of the Oldman River, for sale. According to you, it won’t flood for another 80 years or so, so it’s a good deal, right? Interested? 🙄

Mrs. Kidd (she/her)

Older: You make a good point, but there is no reason to be so rude.

This Red Neck Has No Neck

I know math is hard, so here is a link to a “Flood Return Period Calculator.” It should help you to understand that the so-called (and mythical) 100-year cycle to which you refer is baloney. I know it relates to flood events, but the same principles apply to the return frequency (or probability) of other extreme events, such as drought.

https://www.weather.gov/epz/wxcalc_floodperiod

biff

thank you for your knowledge driven letters, Lorne.