To better serve site visitors, Government of Alberta ministry web content is being centralized on Webpages on this ministry site will be either relocated to or removed over the next few months. Messaging and redirects will help guide you to updated content during and after this transition. Scheduled completion date for this project is March 31, 2019. Thank you for your patience as we proceed with these changes.

Water Management in Alberta

In Alberta, water diversions are managed primarily through a system of water licences issued by Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) under the Water Act. Municipalities, private companies, individuals and others can apply for a licence to divert water.

The current water allocation management system (e.g. prior allocation or ‘first in time, first in right’) provides some certainty for users that invested in water licences in the past.

During times of shortage, senior water licence holders are entitled to their allocation of water before more junior water licence holders, regardless of purpose, although there are provisions in the Water Act that would allow the Minister of AEP to address issues in an emergency.

The Water Act also provides a statutory right to water use for riparian household purposes that meet certain criteria, and gives it top priority over all other water uses.

Before a water licence is issued, the department considers:

  • 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;
  • Natural water supply;
  • Needs of the environment;
  • Existing licences; and
  • Apportionment agreements.

If the water licence application is approved, the applicant is granted a licence for a specific water allocation. The types of water uses vary in watersheds throughout Alberta. For example, in the Bow River basin, most of the allocated water is used for irrigation. In the North Saskatchewan River basin, most of the allocated water is used for cooling in thermal power plants.

Water allocations can be issued for non-consumptive and consumptive uses. A non-consumptive use is one where the water used is immediately and directly returned to the source from which it came. For example, water used in the production of hydroelectricity is a non-consumptive water use.

A consumptive use is one where the water taken from a source is not entirely or directly returned to that source—some or all of the water is consumed. For example, water is taken from a lake to feed cattle is considered a consumptive use of water. As well, municipal water use is considered to be a consumptive use.

The Water Act includes provisions for the department to:

  • Create, authorize and approve water management plans;
  • Issue or deny approvals and licences;
  • Create Crown Reservations (a tool under the Water Act that allows the Minister of AEP to specify the purpose and priority of use for that reserved water); and
  • Conduct monitoring and enforcement activities and numerous other responsibilities.

Water Management Plans

Managing water in a water shortage means identifying the limit for water allocation and how water is managed amongst each licencee and the environment. Under current water management planning practices, a limit on allocations can be established for each basin, effectively placing a cap on new licences for the river basin or groundwater aquifer once this limit has been reached. For example, in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB), the department is no longer accepting applications for new surface water allocations in the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan River sub-basins, except for those purposes identified in a Ministerial reservation.


Page Information

Updated: Jul 5, 2018