Today the Bow River is giving as much of itself as it possibly can in order to irrigate surrounding farmland, supply drinking water to the 22 municipalities along its route and power 12 TransAlta hydroelectric facilities. All the water that can be legally allocated has been and the Bow River basin is closed to new licences. Where the Bow joins the Oldman River, the two become the South Saskatchewan, making up the province’s most populous and strained watershed.
The Alberta government and those who work with its rivers, such as overseers of the irrigation districts, municipal water managers and academics, have anticipated this situation for over a decade. In 2003, they moved to do something about it, forming the Bow River Basin Council and other similar boards for the province’s major supply watercourses.
Several advisory councils elected to close their rivers to additional withdrawals. As a result, in August 2006 the legislature officially closed the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers to new applications for water. Since that time, if someone needs water they have to share a pre-existing licence. This has created an unofficial market where licence holders agree to sell or trade portions of their water allocation to other users.
Effectively closing the basin was not a permanent solution, says Mike Murray, the Bow River Basin Council’s program manager. The intention was to give the council time to learn whether the Bow, and southern Alberta as a whole, really was at its limit for water withdrawals and decide what could be done to keep it alive while continuing to supply the area’s growing needs. Since then, those involved have concluded the river is indeed pushed to the hilt.
David Hill, executive director of the government-funded Alberta Innovates’ Water Solutions project, says the pressure has been on to find ways to stretch the existing water supply for projected population growth without damaging river ecosystems.
“You just can’t draw a line in the sand and stop,” he says of the licence moratorium.
The population of Calgary is projected to hit 2.5 million in 50 years. The Calgary Regional Partnership has forecasted the city’s water needs to the year 2076, estimating with a wide margin of error that Calgary’s water use will be 2.4 times higher than it is today. City administration has responded with its “30-in-30” target: aiming to reduce its water consumption by 30 per cent over 30 years to accommodate growth.
Hill is among many stakeholders studying regional water supply who believe the only way to make sure Albertans get what they need is to overhaul the way rivers are managed.
“We have been very fortunate over time in the way water management has taken place in Alberta; that there has been tacit unofficial ongoing co-operation between the water users throughout the South Saskatchewan basin. I think what we’ve recognized, though, is populations grow, and as demand for water increases and as we need to address some unmapped environmental issues, the only way to really be able to address [it] is by more directly integrating how water is managed across all of its uses,” he says.
Stakeholders are in virtually unanimous agreement that the rivers must now be managed collaboratively from their glacier sources to the instant they cross the Alberta border, instead of the haphazard reliance on minimally regulated “tacit” co-operation while each user group essentially thinks only of its own needs.
Historically, irrigation districts worked closely with one another, but not with users who rely on the rivers for recreation, or with hydroelectric facilities. The result is not only the risk of overusing a watershed, but of one group’s actions — such as opening a dam — inadvertently affecting others.
“From the perspective of those who operate facilities, so that would include the irrigation districts, the City of Calgary, other organizations, the TransAlta Utilities upstream facilities, I think they’ve all recognized and are very supportive of the concepts that would allow system-wide management scope to take place,” says Hill.
Murray and Hill agree a holistic approach is necessary because in working together, each group will identify challenges facing other users whenever changes are made to river management.
“There might be a few things that we come up with as an idea, but they haven’t thought about it through another user’s perspective,” says Murray.
However, concrete solutions are elusive. Murray and Hill both echo river management reports that say conservation and efficient water use is necessary, but none have presented ideas more revolutionary than continuing to exchange traditional plumbing for the low-flow varieties.
“Maybe the options just aren’t there yet or they don’t know about them yet,” says Murray. “It’s better to do something now than to do nothing, even if it’s not going to fix everything right away
One of the problems with managing watersheds in southern Alberta is variability from one year to the next. University of Lethbridge geography professor Dr. Jim Byrne says the Bow River basin is unique in its tendency to frequently experience both floods and droughts, but also in its intensively managed waters.
“Right now, I guess you can say they worked out a reasonable arrangement and everybody’s sharing,” says Byrne of the current allocation system. But, “it’s intensively managed... a lot of people would say that cannot make for a healthy river because it’s just too radically disrupted.”
The Bow’s unpredictable flow rates from one year to the next presents a challenge with providing water where it’s most needed. Byrne believes this dilemma will only be compounded by climate change.
“[Climate change] will make it more challenging because we’re going to have more extremes.... The outcomes of that will just be that much harder for us to deal with given that we’re already fully allocated in an average year,” he says. “Long-term if we start to see these droughts again and again we’re going to say ‘okay, should we really be farming this in this manner? Maybe we shouldn’t. Let’s re-examine where crops are grown and what land use there is.’ I think it’s a step that we’ll see happen pretty routinely.”
No one is willing to guess what the river’s real limit is. The best solutions so far involve relying on future technological advancements and voluntarily reducing consumption.
Tenuous as that sounds, it has already brought success. Ron McMullin of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association says farmers are acutely aware of the area’s water issues. Since irrigation uses more water than anything else in southern Alberta they have good reason to be. He says careful management and pursuit of more efficient ways to produce crops has led to a 10 per cent reduction in the amount of water diverted from the Bow for irrigation since 1976, despite a 45 per cent increase in the area of land irrigated.
“In irrigated agriculture there has been what I would call some tremendous advances in efficiencies,” says McMullin. Lowered sprinklers, narrowed canals and drought-resistant crops have allowed production to increase without increasing the burden on the river.
He also says the current allocation licence system, where those who already have licences get first rights, shouldn’t be changed without a comprehensive solution ready to replace it.
“If you abandon that system, what do you replace it with? Who decides who gets water in a shortage?...
“Frankly this one has worked quite well. Are you aware of anyone along the Bow River who’s ever been cut off from water?” he asks.
Murray at the Bow River Basin Council says he is confident user groups will come up with solutions before disaster strikes.
“It maybe doesn’t seem like we’re moving very quickly, but we are going towards that end goal,” says Murray. “The devil’s in the details.”