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Alberta Auditor Finds Province’s Surface Water Management Ineffective

Alberta Auditor Finds Province’s Surface Water Management Ineffective
Alberta Auditor Finds Province’s Surface Water Management Ineffective

EDMONTON — The provincial government’s management of Alberta’s increasingly stressed water supplies is a shambles, the province’s auditor general says.

EDMONTON — The provincial government’s management of Alberta’s increasingly stressed water supplies is a shambles, the province’s auditor general says.

A highly critical auditor’s report released Wednesday found that Alberta has implemented water conservation targets in two of its seven major river basins. The government also doesn’t know whether existing water conservation targets are working.

The report says processes to monitor water use, assess risks and decide when conservation is needed are weak. And monitoring to ensure water users are efficient and within the requirements of their licences is inadequate.

“(Alberta Environment and Protected Areas) lacks effective processes to manage surface water allocations and use,” said Auditor General Doug Wylie. “Public reporting on the results of surface water management is lacking.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz was not available to answer questions.

In an emailed statement, department spokesman Ryan Fournier said it takes Wylie’s conclusions seriously and is spending $18.5 million over three years to evaluate the province’s water management and regulatory system.

The Wylie report states that the lack of targets for the conservation of both water quality and water quantity concerns to assure.

“(It includes) the impacts on aquatic life, the impacts that various industrial, commercial and recreational activities would have,” said Deputy Auditor General Eric Leonty, who oversaw the audit.

There are no triggers to let managers know when water is running out. There is little oversight and enforcement to ensure current users are in compliance with their licenses.

“What we found for most of those compliance reviews is that they were not completed,” Leonty said. “A number of staff members did not even know that this was a requirement.”

According to Leonty, water permits were extended in many cases, even though there were indications that the rules were not being complied with.

In addition, the report states that Alberta’s water management system is based on information that is years old.

“In terms of overall supply and demand levels, the last time that was examined was 16 years ago,” Leonty said.

The report also finds that Alberta is ill-equipped to respond to changing water conditions. The province’s first-in-time, first-in-right management system locks in historical usage patterns and ensures that licensees get water regardless of whether they use it at all.

“Historical water permits are not affected by a water conservation target,” Leonty said. “That does result in limitations, even if there is a conservation target, to deal with that situation.

“The current approach is reactive rather than proactive.”

Fournier said the upcoming review will work with water users to improve conservation and productivity. And it will modernize information management systems so managers can respond more quickly.

“Water conservation targets are already in place where they are most effective, in areas with high water demand or where water scarcity is more common,” he said.

Wylie added that public reporting also needs to improve.

While data from individual permits is available, information on basins and sub-basins is not. The report also says the government relies on self-reporting, which it describes as “clearly ineffective.”

According to Kennedy Halvorson, a water specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, the audit reflects concerns her group has had for years.

“The government is essentially making decisions without any knowledge or consideration of the minimum amount of water that is needed to keep our watersheds viable,” she said. “They are doing it without keeping records or paying adequate attention to the public.”

The audit comes at a time when Alberta is still facing water supply problems.

Most of the province is considered abnormally dry or under drought conditions ranging from moderate to extreme. As of July 4, there were 23 water shortage warnings in the province.

Municipalities, irrigators and industry in southern Alberta have agreed to reduce their water use. However, these agreements are not binding.

Climate scientists predict that the Prairies will experience lower water levels in the summer, falling lake levels, retreating glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and drought.

Meanwhile, the provincial energy regulator is reviewing proposals for coal exploration, a hungry industry.

“(Water) is life,” Halvorson said. “It’s precious.

“We need to know that we are using it in a way that is sustainable in the long term.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press