Alberta wrestles with its most critical resource: water

After more than a decade of disasters brought on by water, the City of Calgary and Government of Alberta are looking for solutions to a problem that will only get worse with climate change

A severe thunderstorm in Calgary in mid-June delivered a salvo of hail that shattered windshields and stripped siding off houses. The accompanying rain flooded streets to the point of closure — though not before submerging dozens of cars.

In a press conference on June 15, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the magnitude of damages within the city exceeds even those of 2013, when the Bow River swelled to precipitate the largest flood Calgary had seen since 1932.

“Over the last 15 years, Alberta has had the most severe environmental disasters associated with water of any part of Canada,” says John Pomeroy, director of the Global Water Futures program, which is based at the University of Saskatchewan.

The 2013 flood caused more than $400 million in damages in Calgary and $5 billion across southern Alberta. The town of High River was evacuated entirely, with more than 100,000 people displaced across the region. Five people were killed.

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The Bow River and its network of tributaries is a system of extremes. In years when there’s less rain and runoff from snowmelt in the mountains and foothills, this system also has the power to withhold the world’s most essential resource: water. As the climate warms, Calgarians are seeing fewer seasons of moderation — and more floods and droughts. 

The Bow River forms a critical piece of the larger network of waterways making up the South Saskatchewan River Basin, as it snakes its way from the B.C. border in the Rocky Mountains, northeast all the way to Manitoba. 

Pomeroy, also a Canada Research Chair in water resources and climate change, has been studying these waters for decades, conducting field research between Jasper and Kananaskis Country.  

Understanding how climate change will affect Alberta’s river systems, he says, is critical to developing the appropriate public policy tools and infrastructure to deal with the new ways in which these rivers flow. 

Charting the impacts of climate change on Alberta’s rivers

While floods have ravaged portions of the province, a lack of water has caused even more trouble in Alberta, Pomeroy says, calling the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire a “manifestation of drought.” It caused nearly $10 billion in damages. 

Then there are the much more subtle impacts, like the extensive drought seen in the province at the turn of the century from 1999 to 2004. This drought also caused billions of dollars in damages, particularly in the agricultural sector, Pomeroy explains.

“[Alberta] certainly suffers tremendous challenges already. And these are expected to become more severe as climate change progresses,” he says.

Pomeroy and other researchers with Global Water Futures are using atmospheric modelling techniques to assess exactly how climate change will influence different rivers in Alberta. 

Looking at the Bow River as an example, Pomeroy says they’re already seeing “tremendous” surges in annual water supply. His research shows that when water flow in 1980 is compared with the years that followed, until 2010, the Bow River saw in excess of 15 per cent more volume on average. 

By the end of the century, water flow is expected to increase another 27 per cent. But perhaps even more critical than the amount of water flowing is that peak flows are occurring earlier and earlier in the year — moving forward by weeks, maybe months, by the end of the century, Pomeroy says. 

All of this has been triggered by an increase in winter precipitation, more often in the form of rain than snow, paired with an increased frequency of mid-winter snowmelt. Spring precipitation in the area has risen and is expected to continue to do so, by as much as 16 per cent by the end of the century if warming continues unabated.

The timing of spring rains and melts is critical because Alberta’s second biggest industry, after oil and gas, is agriculture. Farmers rely on the flows from the Bow River to be available when crops need water. 

Pomeroy says Alberta hasn’t had to invest in upstream water storage infrastructure in the past as snowpack served as a natural storage device. That, he says, is likely to change. 

“Right now, Alberta uses the flows that peak in June for irrigation in June. So it doesn’t need to be stored very long. If peak flows are coming in March or April, [then] irrigating in June or even into July becomes very problematic,” Pomeroy says. 

“Alberta has been very fortunate, historically. That’s about to change.”

Regulating water supply in the face of climate change

In an effort to wrangle the changes in the river system, the Alberta government is considering costly new infrastructure. Flood mitigation projects like the Springbank dam, which will control flow on the Elbow River west of Calgary, and other smaller undertakings, have been well publicized

The Springbank project in particular has been highly controversial, with nearby landowners arguing it will have significant impacts on the environment, including wildlife. The Tsuut’ina Nation, southwest of Calgary, opposed the construction of the dam for years before the Government of Alberta offered the First Nation a $32-million grant for mitigation of impacts resulting from the dam, in exchange for the withdrawal of its objection.

Three other proposals, billed as flood mitigation projects, are designed to control upstream water storage in the Bow River system so water continues to flow when it’s needed most. All of the proposed projects would have sizeable — but yet unmeasured — environmental impacts. They have estimated price tags in the hundreds of millions and construction timelines spanning up to two decades.

Bow River system proposed reservoir projects

Three reservoir options are being considered to manage water flow in the Bow River system from Seebe to Calgary. Map: Government of Alberta

One option is the construction of the Glenbow East dam and reservoir, which would sit upstream of the Bearspaw Dam southeast of Cochrane. Another proposal would see the creation of a new reservoir on Stoney Nakoda lands near Morley. A third option is to decommission the existing Ghost River Dam just west of Cochrane and move the dam 2.5 kilometres downstream to create a larger reservoir.

None of the proposed projects have been approved by the province. Conceptual assessments have been completed but have not been made public, according to the province. The next step will be conducting feasibility studies of the selected project or projects.

Generally speaking, these projects have been billed as flood prevention infrastructure. Frank Frigo, a water resources engineer and the City of Calgary’s leader of watershed analysis, says they could prove even more useful in addressing drought prevention and mitigating the impacts of changing river flows. 

As more infrastructure is created, it builds resiliency within the system, says Frigo, adding that it gives the city the power to address both flood risk and water needs at the same time. 

“Just because you have a bigger bucket, doesn’t mean you have to use it, but the fact that you can use it — it’s kind of like having a seatbelt and an airbag. [It’s] more levels of protection,” Frigo says. 

“We might not grasp the problems of the future, we might not have the tools [or the] acuity to see exactly what the management problems of the future may be, but the more capacity we can build into the system that’s flexible, the better.” 

Climate change will impact water demand as well as supply

As the frequency of heat waves increases, demand for water by residents and agricultural users of the Bow River is also likely to trend upward, Frigo says.

But this isn’t news to him. Work to address growing stressors on water supply in southern Alberta began quietly about a decade ago, he tells The Narwhal. 

“What we have to recognize about the physiography of the basin is that it’s really steep, there isn’t a lot of natural storage. And just like a steep roof, when water hits it, it runs off very fast,” Frigo says.

“So unlike in other Canadian jurisdictions where you have large natural lakes — Lake Winnipeg, Lake Ontario — where there’s lots of surface storage, we’re in the situation where our upstream catchment is very beautiful and very austere, but it’s a very steep roof.” 

In dry years past, Albertans have already seen this problem bear out. 

With limited storage to draw from, during the turn-of-the-millennium drought, everyone who pulls from the water system — farmers, cities, industry — all had to conserve diligently in order for everyone to access the water they needed through the summer. And they still had to pass on 50 per cent of the water to Saskatchewan as is mandated by interprovincial agreements.

Growing concerns over water allocation in Alberta

Recent drought cycles have drawn increasing attention to Alberta’s water licensing system and just how water is doled out across the province. Anyone who pulls water from Alberta water systems needs a licence — with municipalities holding licences on behalf of their residents.

The system that controls water allotments predates the establishment of Alberta as a Canadian province. In theory, it gives the right to those parties with the oldest licences to draw their entire allotment, before the next in line gets a drop. 

The agricultural sector accounts for 60 per cent of issued water licences in Alberta, according to provincial documentation. These licences are controlled by 13 irrigation districts, and their oldest claims to water were documented in the late 1800s.

The power of those irrigation districts came into focus after the extreme drought in the early 2000s. Legally, their licence holders could pull water ahead of towns and cities looking to fill their residents’ glasses, sinks and toilets — no matter how desperate the shortage.

Alberta drought agricultural industry

Droughts in Alberta threaten the province’s massive agricultural industry. Photo Jose Ibarra / Flickr

The issue was sidestepped through cooperative efforts of licence holders, and the irrigation districts made a pledge to always allow for priority to be given to ensure “human needs and livestock sustenance” is secure before crop farms pull water. Legal experts have since called into question whether or not that pledge would ever be enforceable. 

Both Frigo and David McAllister, general manager of the Western Irrigation District, say cooperation between stakeholders — such as weekly meetings to determine who will withdraw water — has allowed for the licensing system to serve everyone as needed. And they say there’s no reason to believe that will change any time soon. 

McAllister also said new infrastructure, like the proposed dams and reservoirs, will help mitigate the impact of changes in the river system on its users by offering more storage and the ability to control peak flows.

McAllister and Frigo are confident the people of Calgary have nothing to fear when it comes to water shortages. 

But the City of Calgary is far from the bottom of the list of licensees. 

Many First Nations never applied for licences prior to the early-2000s drought, believing that rights to the water came with the land designated to them under federal treaty agreements.

“As we moved into acute water scarcity in southern Alberta, it necessitated the introduction of a water market and closing the basin to new water licences,” explains Clayton Leonard, senior counsel at JFK Law Corporationin Victoria, B.C. “What Alberta had put on the table for ‘accomodation’ of First Nations was the last licences out of 22,000.”

Leonard represents a number of First Nations in disputes over water rights both in B.C. and Alberta, including Canada’s largest reserve, that of Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe), in southwestern Alberta.

Effectively, Alberta’s “first in time, first in right” allotment system, in a time of water shortage, gives farms the first kick at the bucket and First Nations communities the last. If water shortages were to reach new extremes, all that prevents irrigation districts from taking their fill, leaving none for those at the back of the line, is their pledge not to.

Legal disputes around water rights have been ongoing for years, and Leonard expects they will only escalate across Western Canada as the critical resource becomes more precarious. 

Solutions to the water shortage, like the moratorium Alberta put on new water licences in the early aughts, have been reactionary. “They froze that because of recent conditions, they weren’t even looking ahead to climate change,” Pomeroy says. 

But anticipatory measures are more complicated.

A couple degrees of warming can have drastic impacts on these waterways, and those will be felt by every user across this system.

Pomeroy points out that how dire this problem becomes is within human control.

“There’s tremendous uncertainty with climate change, because the extent of climate change is in part a human decision: how we limit carbon emissions in the future.”

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