Considerations Under the Review

Building on the strong foundation provided by the Water Act, and the valuable recommendations of the Minister’s Advisory Group and the Alberta Water Council’s Water Allocation Transfer System Upgrade Project (WATSUP) team, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) is investigating the potential for changes in five areas or themes to continue to develop the foundation for a more integrated decision making system to manage water resources in the Province:

Incorporating the flexibility and adaptability provided by water markets and other market-based instruments, such an integrated system will be designed to effectively protect aquatic ecosystems while at the same time providing users with opportunities for continued access to valuable water resources at acceptable levels of risk during times of water scarcity.

Managing risk in times of scarcity

The Water Act allows for water allocation transfers between users, as well as the development of sharing agreements. The intent of this theme is to explore options to advance, in a more formal and systematic way, these and other potential tools for redistribution of risk among senior and junior licences, including the environment (e.g., licences for Water Conservation Objectives (WCOs)).

By conducting a proactive and strategic reassessment of the challenges and opportunities provided by the priority allocation system, this theme seeks to enable better management of environmental and investment risk.

Protecting water for the environment and other purposes

The aquatic environment, as defined by the Water Act, includes all living and non-living components of the environment in or adjacent to water bodies. This includes fish, aquatic plants, invertebrates, soils, and other plants and animals that depend on water.

A healthy aquatic environment requires an amount of water that would naturally occur in a river at any particular point in time. Water supplies are naturally variable from season to season, year to year and place to place. Natural variability must be retained for optimal aquatic health. When considering protecting water for the environment, it is essential to focus on maintaining natural flow variability. This means the volume of water being protected would vary as a proportion of the natural flow.

How does AEP currently manage water for the environment?

The department currently manages water for the environment using several tools:

  • Instream flow needs and instream objectives defined in licence conditions, specifying when water diversions may not occur;
  • Storage and releases from water infrastructure to meet instream objectives;
  • Water set aside by the Government of Alberta (Crown Reservations);
  • Water conservation holdbacks resulting from water licence transfers;
  • Water management frameworks that set cumulative diversion limits for a specific reach of a river under specified conditions.

A water conservation holdback can be used to protect the aquatic environment or to implement a water conservation objective. The department may withhold up to 10 per cent of an allocation of water being transferred - if it is in the public interest. Any water held back may be licenced to the Government of Alberta to protect the aquatic environment or to implement a water conservation objective.

Water conservation objectives

Alberta’s Water Act provides a tool to protect the aquatic environment through the use of a water conservation objective (WCO).

A water conservation objective defines the quantity and quality of water to remain in a river or other body of water for the:

  • Protection of a natural water body or its aquatic environment, or any part of them;
  • Protection of tourism, recreational, transportation or waste assimilation uses of water; or
  • Management of fish or wildlife.

WCOs are established by the designated Director under the Water Act. The Director must engage in public consultation prior to establishing a WCO, which is most often done through a planning process. Water or watershed management planning processes can be initiated by anyone in the province; however, most often these are led by a Watershed Planning and Advisory Council (WPAC) designated by AEP. A Water Management Plan approved by the Lieutenant Governor in Council may contain recommendations for a WCO. These recommendations provide strong direction to the Director. Currently only the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) has an established WCO.

In most cases, the WCO is recognized as being a balance between leaving water in the river for the environment and other purposes and diverting it for use.

How much water is needed to protect the aquatic environment?

AEP currently uses instream flow need and base flow calculations to help determine how much water is required to meet the needs of the aquatic environment:

In-stream Flow Need (IFN)

Instream flow needs are science-based calculations that determine the quantity of water required to remain in a river in order for there to be no/minimal impact to the life cycle of aquatic species or the established ecosystem.

Base flow

Fish habitat and riparian instream flow need determinations identify a base flow, below which no further reduction in flow is recommended to minimize loss of aquatic species. These are the uncommon low flow events that naturally stress a population and may limit overall population size.

An in-stream flow need study is based on five components of the aquatic environment:

  • Hydrology – stream flow and water movement, including quantity, timing, duration, and frequency of flows;
  • Geomorphology – river and stream channels and their associated landforms, shaped through the interaction of water, rock, soil, and vegetation;
  • Biology – fish species and other species that are sensitive to (or indicative of) changes in flow regimes;
  • Water quality – temperature, dissolved oxygen, chemical composition; and
  • Connectivity – considers streams as pathways; upstream is connected with downstream; surface water is connected with groundwater; stream channels and floodplains are connected; and events are connected in time

A guiding principle in determining the instream flow need is variability in flows (from season to season and year to year), as it plays an important role in shaping the ecosystem.

Diverting water for economic growth

Diverted water is the amount of water a licence holder is permitted to withdraw from a water source in one year, usually expressed as an allocation consisting of a volume (e.g., cubic metres, acre-feet), a maximum pump rate and timing. The total withdrawal over the year cannot exceed the volume of water specified in a licence.

Examples of diverted-water uses include:

  • Municipal;
  • Agriculture;
  • Industry; and
  • Commercial (e.g. golf courses, gravel pit operations).

What approval is required to divert water?

A licence under Alberta’s Water Act is required to divert and use surface or groundwater in Alberta.

The licence identifies:

  • Water source;
  • Location of the diversion site;
  • Volume, rate and timing of the water to be diverted;
  • Priority of the water right established by the licence;
  • Purpose (specified use) of the water;
  • Any conditions the diversion must adhere to; and
  • Expiry date.

A licence for the temporary diversion of water can be issued for up to a maximum of one year.

Note: licences to divert water are not required for statutory (riparian) household use, traditional agriculture use, fire-fighting, wells equipped with hand pumps, alternate watering systems that use surface water for grazing livestock, and some types of dugouts.

The Water Act allows agricultural water users who used water prior to January 1, 1999 and filed a registration prior to 2003, to raise animals and apply pesticides to crops, to register their water use and receive a priority number dating back to the time of first use. The registration process was meant to provide a fair mechanism of protecting traditional agriculture water uses while at the same time minimizing the impact on existing licensed users.

Water governance in Alberta

Governance refers to the processes and institutions (including regulations, policies and organizations) governing the allocation and management of protected and diverted water resources throughout Alberta’s river basins. It encompasses the range of actors (e.g., governments, corporations, NGOs, quasi-governmental boards, etc) involved in decision making and implementation, clearly identifying different roles, authorities and accountabilities.

Around the world, there is a growing role for non-government actors in water governance. In Alberta, this is reflected by the partnership approach advanced under Water for Life, including:

A key concern for water governance in many jurisdictions, including Alberta, is water allocation governance. Water allocation in Alberta remains very much the domain of the provincial government, which retains ownership of the resource and has ultimate accountability for water allocation decision making and implementation. For instance, decisions regarding the allocation of water (through licences granted under the Water Act) are made by provincial officials, who also have the authority to decide on water allocation transfers. It is the responsibility of these provincial officials to ensure that water allocation decisions do not harm aquatic ecosystems and existing water users.

Actors involved in Alberta’s water allocation management system include, among others:

  • Environmental Appeals Board
    The Board is an independent board that gives Albertans an opportunity to appeal certain decisions made by AEP under the Water Act.
  • Irrigation Districts
    Non-profit corporations that manage large water allocations and infrastructure on behalf of farmers located within districts’ boundaries as per the Irrigation Districts Act.
  • Municipalities
    Local governments that manage large water allocations and infrastructure on behalf of residents located within municipal boundaries.
  • Storage Operators
    Public and private organizations that have the ability to store large amounts of water for different purposes (e.g., power generation, recreation, irrigation, flow regulation), influencing other users as this water is released.

The water allocation management system review will study the current governance system to ensure it meets the social acceptability of water allocation decisions and aligns with other Government of Alberta strategies, policies and legislation. Opportunities for innovative governance approaches, including new roles for government and non-government actors, will also be considered.

Knowledge, information and research

Having comprehensive, robust information and knowledge of our provincial water resources and the different water uses is a critical element in our ability to manage our water allocation system effectively. A key role for government is to continue to assure Albertans of the sustainability of the Alberta’s water resources, both in terms of quality and quantity.

This commitment to knowledge, information and research has three main components:

  • Scientific knowledge of Alberta’s water resources (i.e., the amount, location and variability of supply; and, information on how much is used and for what purpose);
  • An understanding of emerging water challenges and opportunities; and
  • An awareness of the water allocation management system and the knowledge and tools to make effective risk management decisions.

Through the renewed Water for Life strategy, the Government of Alberta will work with its partners and others to monitor Alberta’s water resources and to report on their status. This integrated knowledge base is required to support a relevant, credible and responsive water allocation management system.


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Updated: Aug 10, 2015