Moving towards healthy waters in Alberta

By Robert Powell & Mathieu Lebel
Right now the Government of Alberta is in the midst of a public “Water Conversation”, intended to engage Albertans on four water issues the government has identified as priorities: (1) healthy lakes; (2) hydraulic fracturing and water; (3) drinking water and wastewater systems; and (4) water management.
Last week one of us participated in a ‘watershed stakeholder’ session held prior to the public session in Edmonton as part of that process. Below are some reflections on the process thus far, but more importantly a glimpse of the water policy and management priorities we feel need to be addressed in Alberta to ensure water is managed to conserve and restore healthy waters.
Mat water Slave river

The Slave River in northeast Alberta entering the Northwest Territories. ©Mathieu Lebel/WWF-Canada

It is commendable that the Government of Alberta is engaging Albertans in discussions intended to improve the way it manages water and other resources on our behalf.  Although it was not possible to go very deeply into any one issue as we dealt with each in succession, we were assured that more comprehensive discussions would follow.
As is the case elsewhere, water management in Alberta is shifting from a government to a governance approach where the public and industry, advisory, and non-government organizations are increasingly asked to play large roles in informing decisions. The key expectation in return is that when decisions are ultimately made by government,  they reflect the interests and priorities expressed by these stakeholders.
While the four issues identified by the Government of Alberta are all important, as Albertans, the first thing that came to mind is what about the health of our rivers? Rivers are central to life in Alberta: they are the sites of almost our cities and communities from the fittingly named Peace River to Medicine Hat, Lethbridge to Fort McMurray, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton, and many others; they support major economic sectors like agriculture, oil sands development, and hydroelectric power generation; they sustain fisheries; and they provide recreational opportunities. In short, they are a key part of the Alberta identity. Surely water management to ensure healthy rivers is a priority!
Mat water Ram river

The Ram River, a tributary of the North Saskatchewan River. © Mathieu Lebel/WWF-Canada.

As a watershed stakeholder, we at WWF were very surprised that securing environmental flows (also known as instream flow needs or protected water), a main driver of river health, was not identified as a priority. Environmental flows have long been a focus of recommendations provided to the government by advisory groups, and are fundamental to impending water management decisions. As illustrated by our provincial neighbours to the west and the east, environmental flows are central to sustainable water management and should no longer be viewed as an ‘enhanced water management strategy.’
Although the implementation of environmental flows is a daunting challenge, it is without a doubt critical to the success of water management in Alberta. It is essential to start now and build upon the considerable expertise that has developed in the province to support healthy rivers and the social and economic benefits they provide to Albertans.
Ultimately, healthy rivers and healthy lakes are part of a broader vision of healthy waters. Jurisdictions throughout the world are moving towards clear and measurable goals for the condition of their waters. It is time water management in Alberta moved in this direction as well.
Mat water St mary

The St. Mary River in southern Alberta. © Mathieu Lebel/WWF-Canada.