Water, Water, Everywhere

Water Water Everywhere ....Or is it?

It's our river, but who gets the water?

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
25 February 2021

Water should be a top priority for everyone living in semi-arid southern Alberta. How much do you know about our water supply? Most of us know that residents of Lethbridge pay the city to pump, filter and chlorinate water from the Oldman River so that it flows from our taps on demand. We pay for it, so it’s ours, right? Nope. Technically, the water belongs to the crown and we are water ‘users’, not ‘owners’. Over many years, our government has developed rules for sharing this limited resource. With minor exceptions, you need a license to take water out of the river. Currently, in an average year, 68 percent of the Oldman River’s water is allocated for diversion. Since at least 50 percent has to pass into neighboring Saskatchewan, we often rely on water stored in reservoirs from the previous year.  A series of dry years means water shortages for license-holders. This has important consequences for us and the health of our environment.

To fully understand our situation, a brief history lesson is in order. Originally, early settlers came from wetter regions accustomed to being governed by ‘riparian rights’ where you could use any water adjacent to your property as long as supply downstream wasn’t changed much. The arrival of the CPR brought major agricultural settlement in the early 1880’s. Partly due to a severe drought in 1887, urgent interest in irrigated agriculture drove the need to formalize water regulations. The federal Northwest Irrigation Act of 1894 recognized ‘prior appropriation’, and assigned water rights according to the seniority of a diversion with some government discretion. An assortment of early irrigation companies and co-operatives staked claim to water allotments. The province took over jurisdiction in 1930 (just in time for another drought), and the Water Resources Act was enacted in 1931. This act set rules for water licensing allocations and priority (‘first in time, first in right’) with each license specifying a purpose for use of the water, the point of diversion, and the rate or total volume of the diversion.

For the next 60+ years, allocations continued to be licensed, mostly for irrigation agriculture, without much thought given to supply limits or environmental impacts. In 1969 an interprovincial agreement was reached that requires Alberta to pass one-half of the natural flow of east-flowing rivers and streams to Saskatchewan.  In 1991, when water managers grew concerned that we may not be able to honour that agreement, a cap was placed on allocations within southern Alberta rivers. The Water Act was revamped in 1999 so that the province could close basins to new licenses and allow the transfer of allocations among different users, with a provisional 10% holdback  for conservation of rivers whose health was degraded by over-allocation.

The next prairie drought in 2001/2002 highlighted situations of over-allocation and helped spawn the Water for Life Strategy in 2003 to address issues of un-sustainability, particularly drawing attention to environmental degradation. The South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) Water Management Plan (WMP) was released in 2006 along with closures to new allocations from the Oldman, Bow and South Saskatchewan rivers and their tributaries except through transfers from existing licenses. This new water marketing opportunity activated the transfer of unused allocations, effectively intensifying water use with minimal environmental benefit.

Scientists, multi-stakeholder groups, and all forms of special interest alliances have been trying for years to stretch our shared water to supply every conceivable use. So, here we are in 2021, and water managers have their work cut out for them. We urgently need to appreciate the value and limitations of our water supply and the growing market pressure it is under. Now is the time to prioritize conserving instream flows to protect river health as an essential part of managing long-term sustainability.

How Does Your River Look Today?

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
18 September 2020

The next time you cross the Whoop-up Drive bridge, glance over the edge and consider your Oldman River. What do you see? Ask yourself, 'is there too little or too much water?”' and 'should I be concerned?' Take a moment to consider how the flow you see compares with flows during this and other years. Seasonal and annual variability is the key to understanding river function.

Water is essential for all life; ours and our ecosystems. Our prairie region is naturally treeless. Grasses and hardy shrubs are adapted to the semi-arid climate where regular droughts prevent trees from thriving. The exceptions are the natural woodlands rooted in the moist places next to rivers, streams and wetlands. These plants stabilize soils and support other species that can’t otherwise survive here. The waters themselves are home to diverse aquatic life dependant on the seasonal ebb and flow of precious moisture.

Seasonal flow ranges are a critical part of the system. During the winter, snow accumulates at higher elevations. As spring arrives, meltwater and rains send a pulse of water downstream. This flow gradually lessens to a trickle as summer heats up. Repeated every year for millennia, this seasonal pattern has shaped life on the prairie and beyond. Daily snows, rains, and temperatures make every year slightly different within a natural range of variability. Occasionally, wet or dry periods set new records in the flow history. These events are often ecologically important as they physically shape riverbanks and encourage or limit dependent species.

The availability of water has likewise shaped human settlements and ingenuity. Our ever-increasing demand for reliable, clean water to supply cities, agriculture and industry has driven the race to capture, divert, and store flow whenever and wherever possible. There are three major dams and numerous other diversions upstream from us. A complex basin model is constantly updated using flow gauges to maximize efficiencies. The licensing system accounts for every drop of water flowing through the system.

While moderated stream flows are convenient for us, river ecology can be profoundly affected by our tinkering. The 'natural flow regime' is fancy-talk for the pattern of quality, quantity, timing, and frequency of non-regulated stream flows. These characteristics are the foundation of river ecology. Altering the flow regime will cause ripple effects through all dependent landscapes and organisms. Everything from channel movements and soil beds for plant seedlings, to spawning sites for fish and habitat for migratory birds, are all tied to these patterns of flow.

We think of this water as 'ours', but it’s just starting its journey and we are responsible to those downstream. We are at the top of a much larger watershed that eventually drains east into the Hudson’s Bay. In fact, we’re part of the Crown of the Continent where if you look west from Fernie the water heads off to the Pacific Ocean, North of Banff it ends up in the Arctic Ocean, and South of Milk River it flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Population growth, development expansion and climate warming are all growing threats to our limited water resources. We need to recognize the value in protecting our natural flows and variability to keep the whole watershed healthy.

So, 'should you be concerned?' the answer is 'you bet!'