Arlene Kwasniak addresses the Alberta Federation of Agriculture at the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley on Tuesday.

‘Where are we going to get the water?’

Arlene Kwasniak produced three maps of Alberta during a presentation at the Alberta Federation of Agriculture’s annual general meeting in Red Deer on Tuesday.

Arlene Kwasniak produced three maps of Alberta during a presentation at the Alberta Federation of Agriculture’s annual general meeting in Red Deer on Tuesday.

The first illustrated the current hydrological health of the province, with swaths of green and other colours depicting ample water supplies for crops and other vegetation. The second, which projected what the landscape would look like by 2080 under a best-case scenario for climate change, was considerably bleaker. And the third, which previewed the state of Alberta’s land 65 years from now in a worst-case global warming scenario, would send shivers down the spine of most farmers.

Kwasniak, who is an expert on laws and policies related to water, pointed out that the Red Deer region would be transformed from parkland to mixed grass under the optimistic model and to dry grass under the pessimistic one.

“It’s even more stunning what’s happening in Southern Alberta,” said Kwasniak, noting the expansive splotch of yellow — representing parched land — in either of the future cases.

Farmers will have to think long and hard about what they grow and where, under this new agricultural reality, she added.

The implications of a warmer, drier Alberta become more concerning when you consider that the world’s demand for food is expected to double by 2050.

“How are we going to meet this global demand for food, if Alberta is going to do its part? Where are we going to get the water?”

Kwasniak offered a checklist of measures that an “intelligent observer” would probably consider necessary to meet this challenge.

Fresh water supplies must be assessed and enforceable caps placed on allocations to users; in-stream flows need to be protected; water for basic human needs like eating and drinking must be secured; both the quality and quantity of water supplies need to be regulated; groundwater and surface water must be managed conjunctively; watersheds have to be governed and managed; the efficient use of water supplies — including recycling — must be regulated; and water resources need to be governed and managed with an eye to climate change.

Current provincial legislation achieves these objectives to varying degrees, but more needs to be done, said Kwasniak.

“I don’t think we need a crystal ball to see that we’re going to be having further rounds of water law reform in the prairie provinces and elsewhere.”

It’s important that agriculture has a voice in this process, she said.

Kwasniak pointed out that Canada has seven per cent of the world’s usable supply of surface water. But much of this is away from the southern regions of the country, where most of its inhabitants live. Water is particularly limited in this part of the prairies.

The agricultural industry is by far the biggest user of water in Alberta — well ahead of commercial, industrial and municipal consumption, said Kwasniak. Irrigation accounts for 96 per cent of the agricultural sector’s water allocation, and in the case of the South Saskatchewan River basin, which includes the Red Deer area, agricultural irrigation consumes 75 per cent of the total water allocation.

Kwasniak is a professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of law, and has taught, lectured and written about water law, natural resources law, environmental assessment law, conservation and sustainability, and other topics. She’s also served on a number of law and policy development committees related to water.

The Alberta Federation of Agriculture annual general meeting continues today.

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