Jul. 04, 2012 - Issue #872: The Beer Issue
Sustaining Alberta’s rivers
Water Matters report pushes for monitoring changes
Water is essential to every facet of life, and monitoring water supplies is an important step towards maintaining healthy water and ensuring adequate amounts for years to come.
By June 30, a group of experts is required to report back to the provincial government with advice for establishing a science-based, province-wide comprehensive environmental monitoring system.
"This team of scientific, regulatory and academic experts will review governance and funding options and provide recommendations to the government so that we continue making progress," Minister of Environment and Water Diana McQueen stated in a previous release.
The six-member working group will focus on developing an implementation plan based on previous recommendations made by the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel. This means establishing a system with appropriate transparency and scientific oversight to carry out environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting functions, along with providing a dedicated, stable revenue stream to fund monitoring, evaluation and reporting activities across the province.
Meanwhile, the Water Matters Society of Alberta, an organization founded in 2007 by citizens concerned about watershed protection in the province, has been working on reports of its own. Recently, it released Sharing Our Rivers: How Albertans Can Maintain Healthy Rivers, Communities and Economies, the first of three reports aimed to provide clear, achievable recommendations for improving river and watershed management in Alberta.
Bill Donahue, PhD, director of science and policy with Water Matters, says he would like to see the working group come back to the government with an arms-length governance structure, with the organization being independently funded by industry and have it report to the legislature rather than to a minister.
"I know some people have suggested that having it report to the minister will make sure the minister gets the information straight from the scientists, but, ultimately, that still falls under the realm of political control and message control and filtering, which is typically the problem," he continues. "If you report to the legislature, I think it would be sufficiently independent, much like an auditor general or something like that, because the way I see it, science is science, and I think the political shouldn't come into play then."
Donahue explains that Water Matters works on the technological aspect of monitoring and investigates the failures of existing or historical monitoring plans. He adds that in 2011, Environment Canada and Alberta Environment brought experts together from across the country and outside of Canada to create a basic framework monitoring plans for water and biodiversity, land and air.
"They emphasized cumulative effects and looking at fates of contaminants, how much is going into the environment, how it travels through the environment and where it ultimately ends up and impacts, with a focus on looking at regional impacts and cumulative assessment," Donahue says, adding this meant trying to figure where the environmental thresholds were and how to avoid the massive changes that would occur if they were passed.
However, according to more recent updates, Donahue says this expert panel has pulled back from its regional cumulative effects mechanistic approach and formed separate silos for components of water, air biodiversity and contaminant dynamics. Donahue says the danger of this split could be lack of communication between the groups.
"My concern is they're just adding more stations rather than actually thinking about what's been wrong. We need to recreate this in a way that it actually does what it's supposed to rather than just adding on top of it," he notes. "It's like building a house that's on a weak foundation: it's still going to fall down."
Donahue would like to see watershed-management-planning integrated with land-use planning and water allocation, which currently isn't the case. Land-use planning happens under a legal framework, whereas watershed planning is under the Water for Life Policy. If there's a conflict between the two, land-use planning will take precedent because it has the force of law behind it.
The reports published by Water Matters focus on the way water is allocated, or not allocated. The South Saskatchewan River basin is now closed to new water allocations, while the Red Deer River remains open. Donahue says a lot of the rivers in the south section of the province have been over-allocated and that most people presume because of the Water Act, which aims to protect fresh water systems and river health, and states when allocations are made, environmental factors will be considered. However, he notes that the Water Act does not state environmental factors will play a major role in deciding whether or not there's water allocations.
"If we really want to figure out what's sustainable, how much our rivers can handle in terms of whether we allocate water or we add sewage and fluent waste, we need to figure out what those limits are scientifically," he adds. "If we don't, perhaps we over-allocate them quantity-wise or we put too much waste into them."
Water Matter's most recent report highlights scientific study regarding what is a sustainable amount of water withdrawl from the South Saskatchewan River basin. The study was done in the South Saskatchewan River basin water management framework and reported figures stating that approximately 85 percent of natural water flows have to be maintained to protect health. In contrast, Donahue says the actual plan in place for managing the South Saskatchewan River basin has defined sustainable levels as 45 percent of natural flows.
Donahue notes that the Red Deer River basin does have 85 percent of natural flows, and says plans are in place to allocate it to the same levels as other rivers like the Bow and the South Saskatchewan.
"What that means is we're guaranteed to have the same kinds of declines in river health in the Red Deer that are already in the other rivers of the South Saskatchewan River basin, which is really unfortunate, because the Red Deer, as it is now, does demonstrate a continuing river health downstream," he adds. "In most rivers in Alberta, if you have a big city there's all kinds of changes downstream because of a release of nutrients."
In addition to over-allocation contributing to the decline of river health, Donahue says municipal waste is an obvious contributer, and with less water in the rivers due to over-allocation, that waste can become highly concentrated. Low water flows can also contribute to a decline in the buffer of vegetation along the river, as well as the addition of dams.
"In terms of risk management in Alberta, the big pillars of our economy are highly water dependent," he says, listing of irrigated agriculture as well as oil and gas development as examples. "They all use a lot of water, and if you go to say, for example, to oil sands hearings, industry and government always describe the water supply in the context of historical averages ... they don't look at trends over time and the trends show winter low-flow periods are getting longer and they're going down. It's bad if we need to take water out of the river all year."
Risk management remains important, as Donahue says Alberta is going to be the province most affected by climate change in terms of water supply impact. This is due to being situated in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, which means the rest of Alberta is a dry area that relies for the most part, on rivers. Donahue adds the glaciers at the head waters of these rivers are melting more quickly, with glacier size decreasing by approximately a quarter to a third in the last two to three decades.
"We really need to do the science to make informed decisions. The decisions we make on water use, ultimately, those are social and political decisions, so I think what we're advocating for is the fact that those decisions should be informed," Donahue adds of Water Matter's reports. "We can choose to do things a different way, but at least if we have the information about the risks, the benefits, we can weigh them and make better decisions."
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