By COLLIN GALLANT on February 1, 2024.
The City of Medicine Hat has been preparing for two months to enter talks toward a potential water sharing agreement in southern Alberta to deal with the likelihood that drought will continue into next summer, the News has learned.
Separate to that, local emergency planners will update the city’s response plan as a “matter of good practice” in case of a complete shutdown of the potable water system.
Formal talks begin today, Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Shultz announced Wednesday after a tele-townhall with agriculture and municipal affairs ministers and large water licence holders.
The province wants to have “voluntary” agreements in place to generally limit water use and shift the legal ability to draw water in certain regions to ensure supply.
Medicine Hat officials were first approached about the potential in late 2023, and expect to be an active participant in the formal process.
“We’ve been at the table since December,” said Kevin Redden, the city’s director of environment, land and natural gas production, a portfolio that oversees intergovernmental relations.
“They’re asking for contingencies and collaboration … and obviously we are a large (water) licence holder, and we do have some room. So, we’re interested in collaborating with the province and seeing what we can do to pitch in.”
Schulz called on all large water licence holders to limit water use and alter operational plans in the summer, which is expected to see low river levels after a warm, dry winter limits mountain snow pack.
The province expects at least one major water sharing agreement on each river basin, including the Bow and Oldman (which join to form the South Saskatchewan River) and the Red Deer River basin, though other additional internal agreements are expected.
In times of extreme drought, water licence holders can be blocked from accessing wells or drawing water in a priority system based largely on when the licence was first issued.
Medicine Hat holds an historic licence that would see it limited last in line.
Irrigation districts as well have told members that while final allocations will be decided in early April, they should prepare for lower amount of water this growing season and plan accordingly. That could affect crop choice.
Alberta is at Stage 4 alert in its water supply management system, where Stage 5 would be a province-wide state of emergency and co-ordinated action to ensure supply.
At the municipal level, Medicine Hat water officials called for voluntary action last summer, such as decreased lawn care, to conserve water as the South Saskatchewan dropped to its lowest level in 20 years, but formal restrictions were never put in place.
If the situation worsens, the threat of fines could be used, but the city would only move to a state of emergency if there were a breakdown or complete shutdown of the potable water system.
“We have (three) conservation-based phases leading to increased water restrictions,” said city director of emergency management Merrick Brown. “The fourth stage would come when we have a sort of major emergency where something has happened and we can’t provide water to the public.”
Beyond the obvious effect on residents, a complete lack of water would also limit the city’s fire-fighting capacity and potentially require the shutdown of the large steam-turbine at the power plant.
“If there was ever a situation where the South Saskatchewan River was so low we couldn’t draw water, that would be a larger (regional) emergency that would almost certainly involve a provincial response,” said Brown.
His office, along with utility and emergency response officials will update a standing plan this spring to address complete shutdown.
Current concern about water availability “makes it natural to do right now,” he said, adding that annual exercise themes are based on “what the current risk is, and that’s where it’s at right now.”