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Alberta government warning municipalities about water use this year due to drought

Alberta’s environment minister is reaching out to municipalities asking them to find ways to use less water this year in light of the province’s drought. 

In a letter sent Dec. 20, Rebecca Schulz asked municipal leaders to develop a water shortage plan, monitor water intake, and review their water licences to see if there are any limits set during drought conditions. 

She also asked municipal water managers to be on standby in case they are contacted by the province’s new drought command team. 

In an interview with CBC News, Schulz said her ministry wants to act proactively and get municipalities to look now at ways they can conserve water.

“We’re really asking them to gather that information sooner rather than later… and then look at a plan to manage this across the province,” she said. 

The province is in a drought due to low rainfall, high temperatures and the effects of El Niño, which is bringing milder weather to northern climates. 

Schulz’s department is preparing Alberta water users for the strong possibility drought conditions will continue into 2025. 

The minister appeared at the Alberta Municipalities and Rural Municipalities of Alberta conferences last fall to get the message out to municipal leaders. 

The department has set up a drought command team and plans to pull together an advisory panel of leaders in the next number of months. The department is also working to finalize its 2024 drought emergency plan. 

Alberta Environment is also working with large water users such as irrigators and agricultural producers on their plans going forward. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator issued a bulletin last month urging water licence holders to adhere to their withdrawal limits and to follow conditions relating to low water flow. 

The AER said it planned to contact industry license holders in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, where drought conditions are more severe, about their plans for 2024. Some are being asked to prepare contingency plans just in case. 

Provincial plan needed, mayor says

The Alberta Rivers app shows 51 current water shortage advisories in Alberta. Most are in southern Alberta, though some are north of Red Deer. 

Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn is the Alberta Municipalities director for towns in the southern part of the province. 

The town just south of Calgary has kept a close eye on its water supply for at least three decades. Homeowners can only water their lawns twice a week from May to the end of September. The town has aggressively worked to plug leaks both in homes and in the water system. 

Thorn said the water levels in the Sheep River, which provides the town’s water, are the lowest she recalls ever seeing at this time of the year. 

She said Alberta may have to look at a provincial plan for water and look at implementing water-sharing agreements. 

Thorn, who describes herself as a water conservation advocate, said Schulz has been proactive in trying to get ahead of the issue. She thinks the Alberta government needs to take a province-wide approach to managing water. 

“We’re very accustomed in Alberta and in Canada that we turn on the tap…and we have lots of water — but we don’t necessarily,” Thorn said. 

“Alberta is a great example. A lot of our water is in northern Alberta but our population is in southern Alberta.”

Hard conversations 

Paul McLauchlin is the reeve of Ponoka County and the president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.

While household consumption is important, McLauchin said the use of water for agriculture and irrigation is a larger concern. He said water use in Alberta is a complex issue that requires people working together on solutions. 

A man stands in front of a banner.
Paul McLauchlin is president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Setting up a committee involving agriculture, municipal affairs and the environment ministry is critical, he added. McLauchlin said Alberta needs to start looking at water storage and recycling. 

“We have to have probably some hard conversations that we probably have never really had province-wide as opposed to our localized drought events that have happened historically,” he said. 

Darren Hirsch, a city councillor in Medicine Hat, chairs the city’s energy and land committee. He said the lack of precipitation in the area is worrying for the area’s agricultural sector. 

He said councils in Medicine Hat, Cypress County and the town of Redcliff, have written a joint letter listing their concerns that will soon go to the province. 

Hirsch said Medicine Hat may have to look at making changes such as setting up watering schedules and relying more on zeroscaping. 

“The unfortunate thing is everyone likes a nice green lawn,” he said. “But basically we’re in a world right now where that maybe is not possible.”

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