Just north of the city limits sits a small cluster of buildings on the side of the highway. Balzac hasn’t grown much since it was founded nearly 100 years ago, but that’s about to change with a massive construction project just across the road. When it’s completed, the development will consist of a mega-mall named Crossiron Mills, a horse racing track and a complex of hotels. The development is located in the Municipal District of Rocky View, a rural municipality that hopes to use the mall as a springboard for a full-fledged suburban development. “It’ll be a full community. It’s part of our vision of making Rocky View a place where you can live, work and play,” says Albert Schule, the municipality’s reeve (elected leader).
What’s more, there’s a lot of money at stake. The municipal district agreed to the project, in part, to recoup the tax revenue it loses whenever Calgary annexes a portion of its land. It’s also a potential source of jobs for the region and, when it’s finished, Schule envisions it being a tourist attraction on par with West Edmonton Mall.
However, one thing has stalled the entire project: water. Rocky View doesn’t have enough of it for the mall, much less for a new town. Last summer, the municipality applied for a licence to draw water from the Bow River. Just before the application went through, the province put a moratorium on new water licences for all rivers in southern Alberta with the exception of the Red Deer River, citing declining water levels. Rocky View tried to draw water from the Red Deer, however, for the plan to work, the town of Drumheller would have had to treat the water for the municipality. The town refused.
Schule next went to the Western Irrigation District, a group of farmers who withdraw water from the Bow. Rocky View struck a deal with the district to buy its excess water in exchange for $15 million. The agreement is still waiting for the approval of the provincial government. The deal was the first major transaction on an emerging water market, in which those needing water have to go to those with large licences and strike a bargain. The project itself has touched off a debate about water use in the province, raised questions about the future of a dwindling resource and embroiled the provincial government in conflict-of-interest allegations.
THE DRY PROVINCE
East of Calgary, fields of wheat and canola are signs of fertile ground. The area has a history of over 100 years of successful agriculture that depends on heavy irrigation. In the same area, however, towns are running short of water, stalling their growth.
For Danielle Droitsch, an environmentalist who has fought to preserve the Bow River watershed, this is just one sign that something is going wrong with water in Alberta. Brooks doesn’t have enough water to supply future residents, she says, while some of the irrigation districts, which have older licences, have extra water. To get it, Brooks would have to strike a deal with the irrigation industry, as Rocky View did.
“Given the limited amount of water we have, we have to ask what we want to do with it. Some say that the market should govern, but how do you make sure water gets allocated for human and environmental needs?” she says. “You can’t have a market-based system.”
The problem with the market, says Droitsch, is that the extra water could go to the highest bidder, and not necessarily to the people who need it most. She argues that the government should review current water licences and re-allocate water to ensure people have enough water and river ecosystems are healthy. There’s enough water in southern Alberta for everyone, but a lot of it is wasted, she says. “There’s some conservation going on, but we are very far from a water-efficient society. We can either let ourselves get to another crisis — and Balzac is just one of many that will happen — or we can say ‘OK, how can we fix this?’”
Dennis Leask, an environmental science professor at Mount Royal College, agrees that southern Alberta isn’t using water efficiently. “There are many, many things that can be done and we haven’t looked at them,” he says, citing covering canals and nighttime watering as two examples. The problems faced by Rocky View are about more than the water the municipality is buying, and involve a complex web of regional politics, he says. Alberta is obligated by a legal agreement with Saskatchewan to provide half of the water from the Bow, Red Deer, Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers to the neighbouring province. If one of the rivers, such as the Bow, is being overdrawn, it forces another river, such as the Red Deer, to make up for the shortfall.
“In the long run, we’re going to have to look at more efficient ways of allocating resources,” he says. “All of these issues will come up again on the next development. If you ask anyone what will eventually slow Calgary’s growth, it’s a lack of water.”
Bryce Nimmo, mayor of Drumheller, saw the politics of water first-hand when Rocky View tried to make the town process the water for the Crossiron Mills mega-mall. The town refused because they saw no point in treating water for a distant project that would bring no benefits to the area, he says. “It would’ve taxed our facilities, and we’ve already got a lot of partners (who use our plant),” says Nimmo. What’s more, the town was uncomfortable with supplying water to a project located in a different river basin. “It isn’t just this little Balzac thing, it’s all over,” says Nimmo. “It’s the whole province. Our province is growing. More people are needing and using their water. Water problems are all over.”
While the provincial government so far hasn’t changed the way that water is allocated in southern Alberta, it has become involved in the Balzac development. Last year, the government quietly approved an $8 million grant for Rocky View to use for the mega-mall’s water infrastructure before it had decided whether the project could take water from the Red Deer or not. When knowledge of the grant became public in May, the Liberal opposition accused the government of a serious conflict of interest: how could the Tories make an objective decision on the mega-mall’s water use when they’d already given it a multi-million dollar grant to spend on water? The government, however, dismissed the accusations, saying that it was committed to making an objective decision.
Rocky View isn’t out of the woods yet. The provincial government still has to approve the deal to transfer water to the project from the Western Irrigation District. Even then, the water won’t be enough for the future residential development the Municipal District of Rocky View is planning. At some point, the municipality will have to go searching for water again.
“It’s definitely not going to be enough — there’s so much development happening in Rocky View,” Schule says. “We will need more water in the future.” For now, he says, the municipality requires the mega-mall development to be water-efficient as a condition of its construction.
However, while the province continues to grapple with the water problems caused by its rapid growth, Crossiron Mills is pressing ahead. If all goes according to plan, the mall will be finished next year. The racetrack will follow in 2009, and sometime after that, Balzac’s handful of residents will sit adjacent to a major residential development including park space, a fire hall and affordable housing.
Schule is optimistic about the development, despite the political firestorm it has unleashed. “People want urban lifestyles and country living, and there you could satisfy almost everyone,” he says.