Earlier this year, alarm bells were ringing about Alberta’s reservoirs running dry. Those fears have largely dwindled — for now

The looming possibility of drought meant Calgary’s water woes were already front of mind when a massive water main broke in Calgary on June 6, but nobody was prepared for such a sudden and drastic change in water fortunes. 

Overnight, the city’s supply shrank by 60 per cent. 

Now, the water is there, sitting in a reservoir. It just can’t be delivered. 

It’s an unusual scenario for a city experiencing a water shortage. Shortages, usually caused by drought, can often be predicted — and cities can do what’s in their power to prepare. The current crisis is serving as a dress rehearsal.

Across Canada, droughts in recent years are increasingly forcing a reckoning with issues of both supply and demand. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

A slow-moving water crisis is almost guaranteed for Calgary and southern Alberta in the near future. A plan and quick action will be needed to prevent a worst-case scenario where reservoirs could potentially dry up in a drought. 

Increasingly, it’s not a question of if, but when.

Melting glaciers, less snow, longer dry spells and sudden downpours are all forecast for the region as the climate changes. Even without those changes, research shows the region has a long history of droughts that can last decades.

From rationing water to investing in rain gardens and natural storm sewers and even recycling wastewater, there are lessons to be learned from cities and regions facing crises brought on by drought, or those planning ahead with an eye to the water line. 

Here’s how some cities around the world — from the Colombian capital of Bogotá to the Alberta town of Okotoks — are thinking about water use.

Calgary water restrictions are minor compared to situations in other parts of the world

Calgary’s water crisis is temporary. The city is not under threat of running out of water to supply to its residents anytime soon — once the pipe is fixed.

There have been dire warnings about taps running dry, but so far the city has managed to stay below the thresholds that would crater the system. Residents have been asked to curtail water use and avoid water-guzzling activities like watering lawns and washing cars. 

But other regions around the world face chronic water issues. 

Calgary water restrictions: Under an orange, smoky sunset just outside of Kamloops B.C., the Thompson River is low, slow and glassy - completely still and smooth while experiencing historically low water levels.
Alberta is not alone in its water fears: many parts of Canada have experienced historic droughts in recent years. Here, the Thompson River east of Kamloops, B.C., is seen below a sky hazy with wildfire smoke during a drought in 2023, one of its lowest points in recent history. Photo: Jesse Winter/ The Narwhal

In Mexico City, a combination of perennial overuse of water supplies, ageing infrastructure that leaks vast quantities of water (40 per cent) and a drought have combined to generate a looming water crisis this summer, threatening surface water that provides 27 per cent of the city’s supply

Water is already rationed in 284 neighbourhoods throughout the city, where, on some days, water either doesn’t come out of the taps or isn’t delivered by trucks. 

It’s the same story in Bogotá, Colombia, where drought has dropped the main reservoir to its lowest recorded level and forced the city to implement rationing, with designated zones cut off from water on a rotating basis three times a month. The city can fine residents for exceeding an allotted amount of water each month.

Calgary water restrictions: A sign indicating Stage 4 water restrictions on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast due to drought.
Across Canada, signs advising of water restrictions are an increasingly familiar summer sight. Photo: Shayd Johnson / The Narwhal

Those two examples and others, including Cape Town in South Africa, aren’t perfect analogies for Calgary, where the infrastructure is relatively well maintained and the system is well managed — despite the recent catastrophic break. But they serve as warning signs about the kind of actions needed if a crisis hits and a city is unprepared. 

They also highlight the need for continued investment in water infrastructure and conservation and the need for forethought and long-term solutions to address both supply and demand — before a crisis.

Calgary has ageing drinking water infrastructure — and increasingly high demand

In most of Canada — aside from the many First Nations communities without access to clean water — people take it for granted the water will flow when they turn on the taps. They know the treatment plants will clean it, the pipes will deliver it and problems will be solved quickly. 

Those systems, however, are under strain. 

Ashley Rawluk is a water-policy advisor with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an independent think tank headquartered in Winnipeg. She said investments in water infrastructure across Canada have not kept pace with depreciation. That’s particularly true on the Prairies.

We’re covering energy on the Prairies
The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
We’re covering energy on the Prairies

“Stats Canada has reported that between 2017 and 2021, the depreciation of our water-related infrastructure outpaced investments by nearly $3 billion,” she said, referencing numbers the institute crunched in a 2023 report. “So we’re seeing almost 22 per cent greater depreciation than we’re seeing investment.”

Rawluk said it’s important not just to focus on things like dams and pipes — so-called grey infrastructure — that can help store water for drier times, but to also invest in natural solutions that help clean and retain water while saving money in the process. 

Natural infrastructure can include restoring wetlands or grasslands, or incorporating engineered solutions such as naturalized stormwater ponds, green roofs and rain gardens, which are shallow, low-lying gardens created to collect rainwater. 

A recent report from the institute highlights examples of natural solutions, including a plaza in Edmonton that not only serves as a community gathering place but also collects and stores stormwater to keep trees alive, retains moisture and helps remove contaminants from the water. 

Rawluk also highlighted preservation of ecosystems, pointing to New York City, which invested heavily in protecting the forested watersheds it relies on for drinking water instead of having to spend money on water treatment plants.

She said the city has saved an estimated $10 billion by avoiding paying for a water-filtration plant , plus several hundred million more on annual operating costs. “That’s a really good example that does show the potential return on investment,” she added.

Older logging activity leaves swaths of clearcut forest on a mountainside among peaks in Kananaskis Country, Alta.
Preserving upstream watersheds, including by preventing logging, can help ensure a safe and clean drinking water supply. Photo: Gavin John / The Narwhal

Such solutions can make it easier for a city to maintain a clean supply of drinking water during droughts. 

In other areas, including in San Diego in drought-prone southern California, recycling wastewater is becoming a bigger focus. San Diego aims to generate 50 per cent of its drinking water supply from recycled sources by 2035. Israel recycles 90 per cent of its wastewater. Both have turned to desalination of sea water for supply, but the practice consumes huge amounts of energy and isn’t practical for areas without a shoreline.

Yet all these initiatives only address one side of the supply-demand equation.

Canada’s water consumption is well above the global average

Canadians consume a lot of water by global standards. According to Statistics Canada, total per capita water use by households was 223 litres per day across the country in 2021, with wide variation between regions. For comparison, European households use an average of just 144 litres of water per capita each day.

In Alberta, the average is 195 litres per person per day and in Calgary it was 170 in 2023, according to the city.

Per capita demand has fallen steadily across the country in recent years. In Calgary, consumption per capita has decreased 30 per cent over the past 20 years, though this measure includes other uses beyond purely household consumption. 

Curtailing demand further will be critical, even without a severe drought

Evan Davies, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta who studies water planning and management, said a combination of technology and behaviour comes into play when trying to reduce demand. 

Restrictions on watering lawns help, but he said governments also need to create incentives to tear up lawns and create drought-resistant yards using native plants — which can have a noticeable impact on outdoor water use. Low-flow toilets, low-flow faucets and efficient appliances can also have a big impact — but all of those solutions can require personal investments and take years to gain traction in a big way. 

Calgary water restrictions: a man's hand reached out to touch a goldenrod plant in a green landscape
Native plants, such as goldenrod in Alberta, can be planted as part of drought-resistant landscaping, which can help reduce water use. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

If water shortage problems are serious enough, Davies said they will require long-term behavioural changes and possibly economic measures to encourage those changes. 

He points to what’s known as a block tariff — a municipal system, like the one in place in Edmonton, where users pay different amounts for different consumption levels. In this type of system, the first “block” of water a household uses is the cheapest. “That would cover your daily drinking water, maybe eating and cooking uses, but not a whole lot more,” Davies said. “As you start to use more, your water costs go up.”

Just south of Calgary, a small city works on water solutions

Just outside Calgary’s southern city limit, the town of Okotoks has an outdoor water schedule that restricts usage based on the days of the week. It’s been in place since 2008. Okotoks has also implemented a block-tariff billing system and provides incentives for residents to tear out their lawns. 

The town also says it has one of the lowest water consumption rates per capita in the country — almost half that of Calgary’s — though this metric includes other uses beyond purely residential consumption. 

Ben Morgan, a town spokesperson, said Okotok’s policies are not due to an acute water shortage but because the town wants to be a good steward of its water supply. 

Calgary water restrictions: An aerial view of the Sheep River winding its way through the town of Okotoks, Alberta, in the autumn, with snow-capped mountain peaks on the horizon (CP PHOTO/Mike Sturk)
Just south of Calgary, the town of Okotoks, Alta., has an outdoor water schedule that restricts usage based on the days of the week. It also charges residents more per litre if they use additional water and provides incentives for residents to tear out their lawns. Photo: Mike Sturk / The Canadian Press

“The water schedule was never in place as a water-scarcity measure,” he said in an interview. “It was simply put in place for water conservation. The idea of taking treated water and spraying it on your driveway or watering a lawn just didn’t jive and sit well with the community of Okotoks as a whole.”

The town is exploring expanding its supply through a new pipeline from the Bow River and has purchased additional water licences over the years to accommodate growth, but remains focused on reducing demand. 

“​​The water schedule in Okotoks will never go away,” Morgan said of the tiered pricing plan. “It’s been there since 2008. It’s part of our DNA.”

Calgary, with other cities, reckons with a future with less water

As Calgary worked to fix the water main that has forced Calgarians to drastically cut back on water use, the city discovered more of the pipe required urgent repair. Initial estimates that it would all be over in a matter of days were cast aside. It could be weeks before things return to normal. 

Parts are being shipped in and crews are working around the clock. The province also recently approved temporary withdrawals from the Bow River for industries like construction and commercial landscaping hampered by a lack of water access.

Calgary water restrictions: Deerfoot Trail bridge passes over the Bow River in Calgary
Calgary water restrictions have spurred the Alberta government to approve temporary withdrawals from the Bow River for industries like construction and commercial landscaping hampered by a lack of water access. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal

Usage, meanwhile, has remained well below the threshold set by the city to ensure adequate supply for several days. Calgarians were busy filling whatever containers they could find with rainwater over the past weekend. 

The water will flow this summer, but experts say conservation remains key for the future. 

Mexico City is facing its day of reckoning, where approximately one-quarter of an already strained and inadequate water supply could evaporate in the heat of summer. In Bogotá, it’s much the same. Soaring temperatures across the planet and poor investment and maintenance are stretching water resources to the breaking point. 

For Rawluk, it’s clear we need to start thinking differently and follow the example of Calgarians who are collecting rain in their backyards this week. 

“When rain falls, we just want to get it off the land, we want to move it away as quickly as possible and kind of move on,” she said. “We really need to stop seeing that rainfall as an inconvenience and start to realize this is a resource we need to preserve and manage.”

There are some relatively simple solutions that are widely known for cities, industry and individuals to implement.

The solutions themselves, she said, are simple. But then there are financial factors at play. “At the government level when you have pressing priorities, I think it makes things become a little more complicated,” she added.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Heat, humidity, wildfires: what the weather report reveals about your health risks

For many Canadians, the summer months are a precious reprieve from long, cold and dark winters. Summer is for barbecues and beach days, camping and...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a big story. Sign up for free →
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'