Water the elephant in the room during Alberta election

April 12, 2012 | By | Reply More

Water issue ignored by political parties during the campaign

Water is critical to Alberta oil and gas, as well as agriculture

Troy Media – by Doreen Barrie     

If I was a candidate in the Alberta election, I would be a single-issue candidate. The issue is one that transcends ideology, gender, ethnicity, religion, class or anything else that divides the population. The issue is water – a substance so precious that humans and other life forms cannot survive without it.

Yet, this Cinderella of resources, is taken for granted and used recklessly without a thought for our future or that of generations to come.

Not many people know that:

  • The amount of water we have on this planet is finite and can only be increased if an ice comet lands on Earth
  • Less than one per cent of all water is fresh
  • Approximately 1.5 billion people depend on ground water for drinking
  • Consumption is doubling every 20 years
  • Half the wetlands in the world, which act as filters and flood buffers, have been lost.
  • Water injected into formations for enhanced oil recovery and fracking are lost to the environment
  • Water in Alberta is particularly vulnerable due to its use in the oil industry, the amount of irrigation in the province and because the Water Act has created a water market in the province.

Two pillars of the Alberta economy – oil and agriculture – are heavy users of water. There is extensive water use in the production of oil from the oilsands, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and enhanced oil recovery. However, irrigation for agriculture is the largest user of water in the province.

Tailings ponds

Polluted water from oil production in the oilsands is deposited in tailings ponds, which cover an area of 50 square kilometres. There are fears that this water is leaching into the soil, but the greater danger is that the walls of these ponds may be breached. This would be catastrophic for everyone and everything downstream.

Fracking, for example, is a process in which water, laced with chemicals, is pumped into rock formations to fracture them to recover the oil and natural gas. The concern with fracking, however, is not only that the water lost but also that contaminated water can seep into aquifers and ground water, rendering them unsafe for human consumption.

Enhanced oil recovery, on the other hand, injects water into formations to recover additional oil from old wells. These formations are so deep that the water is lost to the environment. In 2008, the industry injected about 35 million cubic metres of fresh water to enhance recovery from oil wells. A considerable amount has been lost since 1972.

Then there is irrigation.

Districts hold water rights

In the 19th Century, settlers in south eastern Alberta, discoverng that farming in that dry belt was impossible without irrigation, succeeded in forcing the adoption of a different way of allocating water. Water was allocated on a First-in-Time, First-in-Right (FITFIR) basis. This means a user who holds the first licence is entitled to the entire amount of the allocation regardless whether junior licencees go short.

Two-thirds of Canada’s irrigation takes place in Alberta and powerful irrigation districts hold the rights to most of the water. Three-quarters of water allocated in the southern river systems is tied up in 20 licences.

In 1996, legislation to change the system was introduced. Perhaps the most significan feature of the law is that it severs the connection between land and water rights. It permits a transfer of water rights apart from the land for which the licence was issued. If an irrigator does not use all of his/her entitlement, the unused portion can be sold. Irrigation districts which do not use their entire entitlement would like to sell the excess.

Water is a public resource which, like oil and gas, is owned by the Crown. Yet, the province does not receive a royalty for it. It is now possible for licence holders to sell rights to a substance that they get practically free.

In 2002, the Alberta government embarked on an extensive public consultation called the Water for Life Strategy. Four years later, an independent review of the strategy recommended that water governance be more open, transparent and accountable. It also pointed out that accountability and consistency were missing from the discussion of governance.

Water is surely something we should be talking about in the Alberta election campaign. The government seems to have abdicated its responsibility on this file by consigning decision-making to the marketplace. In fact, the province does not seem to understand the role it should play. The public interest in this matter requires a strong champion, but the Alberta government has not been a prudent steward. When environmental groups attempt to raise important issues such as these, they are accused of being alarmists who want the economy to grind to a halt.

In fact, what they are attempting to do is to draw attention to irreparable damage that is being done to something that is vital to sustain life now and far into the future.

We would be irresponsible indeed if in a few generations, we squandered a resource that is irreplaceable.

Doreen Barrie is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.


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Category: Alberta Election, Analysis

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