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Alberta outlines $125M drought and flood grant program as water-sharing talks continue

The Alberta government says it will accept applications from municipalities and Indigenous communities across the province who want to design and construct projects that protect from flooding and drought. It is pegged to launch later this year.

The project would allocate $25 million per year from 2024-25 through 2028-29, and could be used to develop berms, flood walls and bank protection, among other projects.

It’s modelled after the Alberta Community Resilience Program, but some of the eligibility criteria have been expanded. The money for the initiative was included in last week’s provincial budget.

Speaking at a press availability on Monday, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz said she didn’t have specific guidance on which municipalities would received funding for projects, or what types of projects they should be applying for.

But she cited the situation in the Alberta community of Pincher Creek as an example of how the program could function.

A woman speaks behind a microphone.
Rebecca Schulz, minister of environment and protected areas, spoke at a press conference Monday in which she discussed a new drought and flood protection program. (CBC)

Last week, David Cox, reeve of the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, told CBC News that water levels behind the nearby dam had dropped so low that the M.D. was being forced to pump water, a situation that started last summer.

It even led to hauling water at a cost of up to $8,000 per day. But in an effort to be more resilient to drought, the municipal district was hoping to drill two aquifers.

“At the moment, we’re waiting for authorizations to [drill] the wells within the dam’s footprint,” Cox said last week.

“That’s pretty time sensitive because we want, need, to get all this work done before the spring melt brings the water levels back up in the dam and we lose that opportunity.”

Speaking Monday, Schulz said the province worked with Pincher Creek to find interim solutions, such as moving the community’s intake valve. But longer-term solutions are now on the radar, she said.

“To, essentially, get access to water below the water table, so that regardless of where the water levels are at, the community has access to water,” Schulz said. “That would be an example of the type of project that would absolutely be eligible for this type of program.”

Alberta Municipalities, the association representing 260 of Alberta’s municipalities, posted on X, formerly Twitter, that it welcomed the introduction of the program.

“This program gives municipalities the support they need to strengthen their local and regional drought responses,” reads a statement attributed to Tyler Gandam, president of Alberta Municipalities.

A man stands in front of a banner.
RMA president Paul McLauchlin said creating resilient communities is an important discussion to have. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Paul McLauchlin, president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said he, too, was in support of the program.

“Making resilient communities in the future, I think, is an important discussion that we all need to have. I’m very happy with the announcement of this funding,” McLaughlin said.

In a statement, NDP MLA Sarah Elmeligi, the Opposition critic for environment and tourism, said the United Conservative Party had failed to adequately plan for the upcoming conditions.

“The UCP’s piecemeal approach to projects means smaller communities with fewer resources for pitching projects may fall through the cracks,” Elmeligi wrote in the statement. 

“A better approach to the drought plan would be to emphasize regional co-operation, as drought issues never are limited to one community.”

Tough year forecasted

Alberta is staring down what could be an extremely challenging year regarding drought given an overall warming trend and this year’s strong El Niño event. Southern Alberta’s agricultural sector is expected to face particularly significant challenges.

In February, Alberta’s snowpack surveys showed below-average snowpack at most sites. There are currently 51 water shortage advisories in place, and water levels in some southern Alberta reservoirs are well below normal for this time of year. 

The province’s most recent moisture situation report, released Feb. 14, says many areas across the province have experienced serious multi-year moisture deficits. Along with the absence of any wet years, it has resulted in a “deep dry” across the landscape, according to the report.

“Above normal moisture will be needed now and well into the summer to help ameliorate long standing moisture deficits that in many areas have taken several years to develop into the state they are in now,” the report reads. 

“That being said, from a cropping perspective, most rain-fed crops can still do relatively well this year even with slightly below average moisture, provided that it is well timed during the growing season.”

On Monday, the City of Calgary said recent drought monitoring data showed little drought relief from recent heavy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains.

Ashleigh Langmaid, a spokesperson with water services, wrote in an email to CBC News that the city would see if it had projects that met the eligibility requirements of the province’s new program.

“With previous financial assistance from the Government of Alberta, investments in infrastructure have reduced Calgary’s flood damage exposure by 55 per cent and will reduced by a further 15 per cent by 2025,” Langmaid wrote.

“From a drought perspective, a new Bow River reservoir remains a critical long-term, infrastructure project that will support a secure water supply that will help manage drought risks and provide added protection against future floods. As the Phase 2 feasibility study work wraps up later this year, we look forward to the province’s next steps on that project.”

Water is shown with a skyline in the background.
The Bow River flows through downtown Calgary in this file photo. Alberta started negotiations with major water licence holders in February to strike sharing agreements in three key provincial river basins, including the Bow. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In January, the provincial government said that for the first time since 2001, it had authorized its drought command team to begin negotiations with major water licence holders. On Monday, Schulz said those conversations were ongoing and had started with some of the more impacted communities and largest water licence holders.

In Alberta, the use of water is restricted through the issuing of “water licences” by the provincial government. All of southern Alberta’s water is allocated. 

But Schulz said it was still too early to say which actions are going to be taken and where water is going to go.

“Those discussions are ongoing. We’re hoping to have some more specifics to be able to share on that a little bit later this week,” she said.

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