Legislative History of Water Management in Alberta


In 1882, the province of Alberta was still a district of the Northwest Territories and water use was dictated by what was known as riparian rights. These rights gave any landowner whose property was adjacent to a body of water the right to make reasonable use of it. With construction of the railway in later years, irrigation development began and large volumes of water were required for land often far from the water source. Officials of the day recognized that a riparian rights system would no longer suffice.

In 1894, the Dominion of Canada passed the North West Irrigation Act. This allowed allocation of water by the government for irrigation and other purposes. Providing the applicant could demonstrate use of the water, an administrative paper was issued outlining the details of allocation including volume, maximum diversion rate, water source, point of diversion, purpose of use and priority number.

Water was allocated under a priority system based on the seniority of the licence (i.e., older licenses had higher priority). For example, during water short periods, an irrigation farmer with a senior licence would be able to divert water before a farmer with a recently issued licence. The system is sometimes referred to as? first in time first in right? or FITFIR and is active only when there is an insufficient supply of water to meet the needs of all licence holders. The Alberta government is responsible for enforcing FITFIR, which, to this day, continues to be the system of water allocation in Alberta's legislation, the Water Act.


In 1930 the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement came into effect. Under this agreement, the Dominion of Canada transferred to Alberta (which had joined Confederation in 1905) the ownership and ability to manage through legislative means most aspects of natural resources including water. In response, Alberta proclaimed the Water Resources Act in 1931. This statute was designed to serve primarily as a tool for allocating water.

Existing water management realities and anticipated challenges led to a shift in thinking about water management and conservation. In 1991, a review of the existing water policyand legislation in Alberta was initiated. Water legislation in other jurisdictions (e.g., Australia, United States) was also reviewed to identify alternative tools that might be applied in the Alberta context. Following this comprehensive review and input from Albertans, the Water Act was proclaimed in 1999.

Water Act

The Water Act supports and promotes the conservation and management of water including the wise allocation and use of water. It also recognizes the need for planning and enforcement components to achieve those desired outcomes expressed by Albertans. The Water Act:

  • Maintains the priority system of water allocation (FITFIR).
  • Protects existing water licenses in good standing.
  • Provides opportunities for public consultation in planning and decision making.
  • Protects existing traditional agricultural uses of water through a registration process allowing users to obtain a priority backdated to the date of first use.
  • Recognizes household water use as a statutory right.
  • Sets the requirement for a provincial water management planning framework.
  • Sets the provision for water management plans to be developed to address local and regional issues.
  • Recognizes the importance of protecting Alberta's rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands, by requiring that a strategy for the aquatic environment be developed as part of the provincial water management planning framework.
  • Allows for the transfer of an allocation of water under a licence. An application for the transfer of water may only be considered if authorized in an applicable approved water management plan or order of the Lieutenant Governor in Council.
  • Provides a transparent and rigorous process before a licence is granted to export water outside of Canada
  • Provides a transparent and rigorous process before a licence is granted to transfer water between Alberta‚Äôs major river basins
  • Encourages cooperation and proactive measures to resolve water management problems through the development of partnerships and water management tools.
  • Provides a wide range of enforcement measures.


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Updated: Jul 22, 2014