Shift toward long-term planning key to water supply: report

Changing the management of Alberta’s rivers is the key to preventing water shortages and pollution, says a report on water management in Alberta. Sharing Our Rivers: How Albertans Can Maintain Healthy Rivers, Communities and Economies is the first of three reports to be released by the Water Matters Society of Alberta, an environmental policy think tank.

Changing the management of Alberta’s rivers is the key to preventing water shortages and pollution, says a report on water management in Alberta.

Sharing Our Rivers: How Albertans Can Maintain Healthy Rivers, Communities and Economies is the first of three reports to be released by the Water Matters Society of Alberta, an environmental policy think tank.

“We need to plan ahead in the long term and re-do how we manage water,” said Bill Donahue, director of policy and science for Water Matters.

Donahue said everything Alberta relies on for economic advancement, including the agriculture, energy and oil industries, is very water-dependent. He said with the continual increase in demand for water and the projected impacts on climate change, Alberta could face serious water issues.

“We have all seen the profile the oilsands have been getting and the need to expand,” said Donahue. “But nobody is talking about water. The industry is entirely reliant on long-term stable water supplies. In reality in the last 35 years, water supplies have been declining.”

Donahue said we should focus on the health of the rivers and sustainability.

As the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance continues to work on its integrated watershed management plan for the Red Deer River basin, the organization considers the report a valuable resource, said executive director Gerard Aldridge.

The report suggests Albertans can better achieve the goals set out in the provincial Water for Life strategy by adopting a science-based framework for decision making that prioritizes the maintenance of river health in watershed planning, amending the Water Act to clearly define science-based water conservation objectives and allowing unused water allocations to remain in rivers to maintain environmental health.

The alliance recently completed the water quality components of its plan and is working on the land use component. In the spring of 2013, they will delve into water quantity, groundwater and later biological indicators. All the components are expected to be integrated into a final report by March 31, 2014.

“It is a very long-term planning process,” said Aldridge. “There is a lot involved in it. There’s complex issues. The report you see today gives evidence of that. There are various approaches that can be used. It would be nice to see more money going toward water research in the future.”

Kim Schmitt, an environmentalist specialist and a director with the Sylvan Lake Watershed Stewardship Society, agreed using science in principle is key to making the best decisions to keep the watersheds and rivers healthy in Alberta.

“The science in forming policy is not necessarily something we have been doing very well,” Schmitt said. “There has been a big gap in policy and science. This is a landmark in the sense that we are advocating that we bring more and solid science and thought process to decision making and policy, particularly around protecting our water assets.”

But Schmitt cautioned science will only take us so far and other processes of risk management must be applied.

“Because we will be making tradeoffs in certain places,” said Schmitt. “For example, in Sylvan Lake you could make the decision to put 50,000 people around the lake. The tradeoff would be you would have to accept the likelihood of much lower quality conditions. Those are legitimate decisions that get made by government folks.”

A Water Matters report on provincial decision making will be released in July and another on water markets and incentives for better management of water rights will be released in September.

To read the current report, go to www.water-matters.org.

crhyno@bprda.wpengine.com

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