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Alberta to launch 'unprecedented' water-sharing negotiations Thursday amid drought fears

The Bow River flows through the downtown Calgary in this file photo. Alberta is poised to start negotiations with major water licence holders to strike sharing agreements in three key provincial river basins, including the Bow.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Bow River flows through the downtown Calgary in this file photo. Alberta is poised to start negotiations with major water licence holders to strike sharing agreements in three key provincial river basins, including the Bow. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Alberta will kick off negotiations with major water licence holders to strike water-sharing agreements for the Red Deer River, Bow River and Old Man river basins Thursday as concern over looming water shortages grows.

Significantly reduced mountain snowpack and below-average precipitation over the past number of months has led to extremely low reservoir levels and record-low river levels. All of the province will be affected by that, but southern Alberta's agricultural sector is expected to face particularly significant challenges.

As such, for the first time since 2001, the provincial government said it has authorized its drought command team to begin negotiations with the major water licence holders. The "scope and scale of the collaborative work underway and being proposed" is "unprecedented" in Alberta's history, the province said.

The use of water is restricted in Alberta through the issuing of "water licences" by the provincial government. One hundred per cent of Alberta's water is already allocated.

If one wants to purchase a licence, they must purchase one from an existing licence holder. This system — referred to as "first in time, first in right" — has been in place since 1894. It means, in essence, that the biggest water licence holders must voluntarily share more water with municipalities and industry.

Farmers are worried about their crops with warnings from the province saying they may exceed their share of the natural flow of the Milk River again this year.
Farmers are worried about their crops with warnings from the province saying they may exceed their share of the natural flow of the Milk River again this year.

The Alberta Land Institute estimated in 2017 that directly and indirectly, irrigation adds $940 million to the province's economy, with some 35,000 jobs tied to the practice. Irrigation is a significant user of the province's water. (Elise Walker/CBC)

There is no law in place that would allow the province to force water licence holders to share their water. There are 25,000 water licence holders in Alberta, according to the province, which make up 9.5 billion cubic metres of water.

Starting Feb. 1, Alberta Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz said negotiations would begin with major water licence holders to secure "significant and timely reductions in water use."

"This effort will be the largest water-sharing negotiation to have ever occurred in Alberta's history. I want to thank licence holders for coming to the table — your generosity, ingenuity and participation in this effort reflects the very best of our province," Schulz said.

Irrigation — the supply of water to the agricultural sector via a network of canals — is a significant user of the province's water, and negotiations with irrigation districts will be a key plank as a part of these upcoming negotiations. Alberta has the largest irrigated area in Canada, most of which are located within the province's 11 irrigation districts in southern Alberta along the South Saskatchewan River Basin.

Irrigation makes up a little more than 73 per cent of water allocation in the Bow River sub-basin and a little more than 83 per cent of water in the Old Man sub-basin, according to figures from Alberta Environment and Parks.

This map shows Alberta's 13 irrigation districts, which are located in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.
This map shows Alberta's 13 irrigation districts, which are located in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.

This map shows Alberta's 11 irrigation districts, which are in the South Saskatchewan River Basin. (CBC)

Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, said water sharing agreements will be critical in the months ahead so as to ensure that no one loses access to water.

"The major water users, the irrigation districts in particular, have committed to making sure that there's access, especially for human health and livestock first," Frank said. "Crops have to take the third seat if there's not enough."

Frank said she didn't want to sugarcoat the situation ahead, as it's likely to be a challenging year. There will potentially be less crop yields, which will impact the economy.

More ranchers are likely to have to sell off their cattle because their grass isn't growing and water isn't available, she added. Municipalities may also have such low flows that they may not be able to pump water into their treatment plants.

"We might only be at the beginning of this drought, we don't really know," Frank said. "Everyone's just kind of waiting to see what the snowpack does, what the spring rain does."

The water-sharing agreements are expected to be completed before March 31.