It would be too easy to assign evil intent into the provincial government’s plans to turn our river basins over to international hedge fund managers who will decide which future Albertans will get water, and at what price. It’s not that our government is evil, it’s just that sometimes they act that way.
Or rather, it is the nature of our governments to let ideology trump common sense.
Alberta’s current water allocation system truly is antediluvian; it dates back to Noah and the ark. Under the system of “first in time, first in rights,” every drop of water in our river systems has already been allocated.
All basins, that is, except the cleanest river in the province: the Red Deer River. There is still (theoretically, by historical average) flow capacity yet to be allocated. Just try to get a licence, to use it, though.
Not until the government completes a review and update of the “first in time” policy and the 1999 Water Act, so that water allocation licences can become things to buy and sell.
Therein lies the evil; we’ll get to that part later.
Here’s an example of the good the government wants to repeat. In the southwestern corner of the province near the communities of Hillspring and Glenwood, it’s dry. A nearby irrigation district had water allocation capacity in excess of its needs, and needed cash to upgrade its aging, wasteful system. They sold a portion of their licence for $78,000, and the federal and provincial governments invested $23 million in plumbing and infrastructure — and now Glenwood has water.
The farmers there pay about $2 a day for water and it’s the greatest bargain ever. What farmer in a 4A climate zone would refuse a long growing season with a guarantee of good water for operations, for $2 a day?
But their water is a drop in the bucket to what’s needed and the government has been trying to fill that bucket ever since. In evil ways.
When the government stopped allocating new water licences, the existing licences suddenly acquired a big potential cash value.
What’s the harm in another irrigation district, seeking to become more water-efficient, getting the capital needed for the best technology by selling part of allocation licences?
In the government’s eyes, there’s none. And that’s where the evil lies.
Those allocations, under rules existing from before the time Alberta became a province, came for free. They are a licence to use a public good in a responsible way. They are not a commodity to sell on the public market under NAFTA, where any foreigner can buy and control it.
The evil lies in the eyes of a government that looks at a forest as a waste of trees, because they’re not being cut down for profit. They see a mountainscape as wasted because there’s no gated (and taxable) community on its flank. They see water flowing unused into Saskatchewan as a wasted opportunity. That’s the evil.
It’s simple enough to rectify.
All that’s needed is for all of Alberta’s river water to be enshrined as a public good in the law. If somebody has unused allocation to sell, the law should require there only be one buyer: the Alberta government. If the government holds potential allocations in reserve, let potential users apply for it — and prove that its use is for the public good.
Water licences themselves should forever have zero cash value on any market, and be non-transferable, except to the government, which can negotiate reasonable transfer fees.
The new laws are being drafted in secret, with zero public input. No other province is even considering selling its birthright like this.
Ask your MLAs where they stand on selling our rivers, before the next election. That’s our grandchildren’s water they could be selling — to interests outside this country.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.