By Lethbridge Herald on December 15, 2023.
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.