Alberta’s weather is always full of surprises. We haven’t seen a year with this little precipitation in more than 25 years — more than 30 if you believe the memories of farmers who have spent a lifetime wondering if they’d have enough feed or forage, or a decent grain crop.
There won’t be any dramatic breakup of the Red Deer River this year; it’s been a clear landing site for migratory birds since the beginning of April.
But if you go to Alberta Environment’s website for the snow pack on the river’s headwaters, you’ll find the reserves in ice and snow are bang on the historic average.
So while we may not be in a panic — yet — about flow rates and water access for the half million or so people who rely on the river for their daily use, people who rely on the moisture in the soil are getting nervous.
Last year, some parts in the Red Deer River basin were declared a disaster area, and signs suggest this year could be worse, if a big — and we do mean big — dump of rain doesn’t hit us in a timely manner. April showers will not be enough to stave off another year of drought.
All of this makes water issues relevant here.
Not to mention the source of a few more surprises.
You might be surprised to learn that Alberta subscribes to the ages-old First In Time, First in Rights (FITFIR) philosophy of managing access to water.
That recently meant the City of Calgary could sit on a large reserve of its water rights and not to share any of them with the shopping mall/race track/casino proposal at the Big Iron Crossing on Hwy 2 — even though they have plenty reserve access to spare.
That led to a contentious proposal to pipe water out of the Red Deer River basin, even though flow rates and reserve access are far more limited. Fortunately for all of us, that proposal was quashed.
The solution came from another surprising source: irrigation districts with water access rights they don’t fully use.
The surprise here is that 60 per cent of all the irrigation done in Canada occurs in Alberta — and that this system was still prepared to share, even in the long-term face of shortages.
They sold a portion of their access rights for millions of dollars, effectively setting the price for fresh water in Alberta.
The government is reviewing how our limited water resources are managed. Hopefully the FITFIR philosophy will be part of that re-examination.
Licence holders with access rights well below their actual usage have little incentive to conserve. Even price has proven a poor incentive, where water is concerned. According to a global study done by National Geographic, Edmonton and Calgary have the most expensive monthly water bills in the world, yet we are immense wasters of water.
The FITFIR system leads to examples so surprising they strain credulity. Yet it is true: in Colorado, it is illegal to store rainwater in a rain barrel. You can own a barrel, you just can’t use it. The rain that falls from the sky belongs to cattle ranchers with prior rights. And you can only use tap water once; it’s against the law to rinse your socks in a tub and pour the water on the garden.
Here’s another surprise: the vast majority of water that Red Deer takes from the river goes back to the river, after treatment.
The biggest losses are from people watering their lawns, and from cracks and leaks in the pipelines.
But it should be no surprise, in a time when we’ve only received 32 per cent of normal precipitation, that everyone should be concerned with water use efficiency.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.