Farmer co-op pushes for more control over water

Experts say proposal would take power from government hands

A farmer co-op’s plan to sell surplus water from its Bow River licence to other industries is a “mistake” that will draw more water from an already over-drawn source and inflate the cost of water says David Schindler one of Canada’s leading water scientists. The Eastern Irrigation District (EID) which handles irrigation in southeastern Alberta is currently licensed to divert 940 million cubic metres from the river for irrigation and agriculture — almost a third of the Bow’s annual flow. On average the EID uses about 75 per cent of its allocation. However the EID is now trying to amend its licence so just under three per cent of its unused allocation could go to commercial industrial and conservational uses. Schindler says that according to Alberta Environment’s own studies the department needs to claw back water allocated from the Bow instead of allowing licence holders to freely market it. “Allowing the irrigators to trade it would make it very difficult and expensive to get water back” says Schindler an ecology professor at the University of Alberta. “It will inflate the cost of water very much.” If Alberta Environment approves the amendment the EID could sell up to 24.6 million cubic metres of unused water to energy companies small feedlots and others who can’t get a water licence from the government. (Last August Alberta Environment put a moratorium on new water licences in the South Saskatchewan River Basin which includes the Bow.) Schindler says that even though 24.6 million cubic metres is a relatively small portion of the EID’s allocation the amendment would set a “very dangerous” precedent that goes against the province’s Water for Life strategy. “Watch. They’ll give it away (24.6 million cubic metres) at a time over the years” he says. “Just like the oilsands — oh it’s only one more plant…. The ratchet only turns one way.” Earl Wilson the EID’s general manager says his group simply wants the flexibility to provide water to those who need it — including conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited. “With the basin being closed any new business that comes into our area needs to acquire a licence” says Wilson. “So what we’re trying to do here is to be able to handle the small ones this way.” In 2002 Alberta Environment introduced a water transfer system that allows Bow licensees to transfer their unused water allocations to other users. Alberta Environment can approve or reject any of these transfers. If the EID amendment goes through however the EID won’t need government approval for any additional transfers under 24.6 million cubic metres. Danielle Droitsch a local environmental lawyer and executive director of Bow Riverkeeper says that if approved the amendment will contravene the Water Act and move power out of the government’s hands into those of licensees. “We maintain it’s completely illegal… even if it’s a small amount” she says. “We view this as the beginning of a fairly slippery slope toward an unregulated water market. This just opens the door and says ‘OK it’s yours. It’s your water. Go ahead and negotiate agreements.’ “Effecitvely you’re not only giving (the EID) flexibility but you’re throwing out public notice public involvement. You’re throwing out the government oversight.” Erin Carrier a spokesperson for Alberta Environment says if the amendment is approved and the EID wanted to use more than 24.6 million cubic metres for anything other than agriculture and irrigation it would have to apply for another amendment. “It isn’t just an open free-for-all — ‘Here you go EID have at it’” Carrier says. Alberta has a “first-in-time first-in-rights” system of water licensing that gives priority to whoever gets licences first. Since the EID got its licence in 1903 it’s a senior user. Many smaller communities in southeastern Alberta are junior users that are starting to ask senior users like the EID to supply them with water. Some new communities have no licence at all. Droitsch says the whole licensing system is archaic and needs to be reworked with current science in mind. “There was a time when first-in-time first-in-rights made sense and there was a lot of water to go around for everyone” says Droitsch. “But now there’s not.” Liberal environment critic David Swann agrees that the licensing system needs updating. “We feel this is a public resource and should not be up for sale to the highest bidder” Swann says. Citizens affected by the EID’s proposed amendment can file statements of concern with Alberta Environment before September 21.