Water Allocation

Total Allocations of Water in Alberta

By the end of 2005, Alberta had allocated more than 9.5 billion m³ of water for various uses throughout the province. The majority (97 per cent) of this was from surface water sources. Although we rely less on groundwater than surface water, groundwater is typically a much more important source for individual domestic water supplies in rural areas. Many smaller communities may rely on groundwater as well as some industrial and commercial operations where surface water supplies are not sufficient.

Water is not allocated uniformly across the province. Most allocations are in the eastward-flowing Saskatchewan River Basin (the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers and their tributaries), where 88 per cent of the population of Alberta is located.

When shown as a percentage of total surface and groundwater allocations, the South Saskatchewan River Basin is the most licensed basin in terms of total allocations. It accounts for over 58 per cent of all allocated water in the province. The second largest in terms of overall allocation is the North Saskatchewan River Basin (29 per cent).

Allocations of Water in Alberta over Time

Water allocations have grown significantly since the 1940s and 1950s, about the time when the population and industrial growth in the province began to increase. In the first part of the last century, water was mainly allocated to irrigation in the southern part of the province. However, the growth of municipalities, industries, and demand for electricity have driven up total water allocations from about two billion m³ after Alberta was founded to over nine billion m³ today.

It is important to note that allocations do not measure actual water use; however, the growth in allocations is still a reflection of an increasing demand for available water in order to support all the activities and development in the province.

Allocation vs Consumption

The withdrawal, diversion and use of water in Alberta is regulated under the Water Act. Under this Act, anyone who wants to divert or use water (other than for basic household or domestic use) must obtain a licensed allocation or approval to divert the water.

Alberta Environment and Parks requires each applicant to explain the intended use and the rationale for the amount of water that would be diverted on an annual basis. However, an allocation is generally based on the maximum amount of water that an applicant expects will be required over the licensing period, meaning that the amount that is actually diverted and consumed in any particular year may be less than the full allocation.

For example, in agricultural and irrigation practices, demand for water is typically lower during wetter years. This is because there is much more natural rainfall and surface runoff so higher diversions are not required. As well, municipalities may apply for enough water in order to reasonably meet their growing population needs into the future, even though it may not yet be required.

Because real usage information is important to determine how much water Alberta is consuming overall, large users are generally required to report how much water they have diverted, consumed and returned each year.

Although the department does not require each and every small licence holder to submit this type of information, the majority of water volume can usually be accounted for by a relatively small number of large licences. This is particularly true in the south, where the irrigation districts account for a good portion of the allocated water.

Because of the circumstances described above, there is a significant difference between what has been licensed or allocated in Alberta and what is actually consumed. Examples from other large users of water are coal-fired power plants, which withdraw large volumes of water for cooling purposes; however, much of that water is cycled through the operation and returned back to the environment.

The same is true for municipalities that tend to return upwards of 80 to 90 per cent of water that is diverted for water supply. When water is returned after being used, it allows other downstream users to benefit from the same resource. Therefore, an understanding of the underlying use of the water and not just the total allocation is also important.


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Updated: Mar 11, 2016