April 21st, 2018

Guaranteeing water supply critical to the future of southeastern Alberta

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on June 15, 2017.

Southeastern Alberta has a love-hate relationship with water.

Each June we worry about river levels and the immediate effects of too much water.

The City of Medicine Hat has spent millions to permanently guard against high waters and each spring rehearses a plan of action to gird weak spots. The province is examining flood protections from the continental divide to Saskatchewan.

It has been a busy four years since major damaging floods receded.

Yet, when it comes to the effects of too little water, the general thought seems to be “fingers-crossed.”

It has been 11 years since a moratorium on new water leases was imposed on the South Saskatchewan River, yet there is still no standalone, overarching plan to address the issue.

The province and some local governments have it on the to-do list, and regional partnerships, such as the Southeast Alberta Watershed Alliance (SEAWA), study the large issues and chip away where they can.

However, if the lawn is burned in any given year or the dugout didn’t fill up, the general opinion seems to be, “well, that’s life on the prairies.”

Aside from scientific discussions about watershed health and the fate of frogs and fish, there are tangible economic reasons to address water security.

Beyond needing it daily to continue living, it is a key ingredient in economic development well beyond the obvious benefits of irrigation.

A lack of water renders impossible the sort of value-added agriculture processing that is now a key target of local economic developers.

It is crucial in chemical production, and even industries that use little to no water in production require large volumes for firefighting purposes.

Water rights are as much a make-or-break item for residential development in rural areas as it is for growing a higher value crop.

As such, Cypress County has moved in recent years to stockpile water rights and consider new water lines. Redcliff also has a water plant.

The three local councils are studying regional trash collection, but water supply seems to be off the table.

Another focus is a renewed push to twin Highway 3 between here and British Columbia. Boosting water supply and quality across the same geographic area hardly gets the same attention.

There is some recognition of the issue, but not enough considering the size and complexity of the problem.

The province has flood and drought control as a stated goal in its water management plan. This year it will spend $131 million for rural water projects, mainly for potable water delivery across Alberta.

About $400,000 will go towards working with land owners along the Seven Persons creek to stabilize shorelines.

Still on the shelf, however, is a 2013 report that argues $100 million of work on the region’s creeks, irrigation systems and reservoirs would improve flood water handling as well as drought storage.

The lack of urgency seems universal.

The World Wildlife Fund this week states that the local water basin is one of dozens in Canada under threat by upstream use and pollution running off from farms.

The eastern reach of the South Saskatchewan is in “very poor health” considering flow, aquatic wildlife and pollution. It supplies drinking water to half the population of Saskatchewan. Across Canada three-quarters of 160 basins have been impacted by climate change.

Aside from this, the long-term goal of mapping aquifers in Canada has been stalled for decades.

This region’s fortunes has been limited by a lack of water since it was first settled.

Is it not time that we address that reality?

(Collin Gallant is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to http://www.medicinehatnews.com/opinions.)

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