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Diminishing the Demand

Alberta’s future depends on water conservation. Are we doing it right?

By Kerry Freek

A couple of years ago I found myself sitting at a table at the University of Alberta with Greg Goss, an expert in aquatic toxicology. Goss had recently been named executive director of the university’s new Water Initiative, a program that is set to accept students from all disciplines this fall. Of all the places in the world, I asked, why build a centre for water research in Edmonton? “Necessity,” answered Goss. “We have all of the world’s water issues right here.”

Canada may not bear much obvious resemblance to countries suffering from extreme water scarcity—think Israel, Australia and much of Africa—but a closer look at Alberta reveals a truly water-scarce region. The province has only 2.2 per cent of the country’s water, and its supply is shrinking. A booming economy, growing population and rising pollution are further limiting water availability. The changing global climate is also a concern. Albertans need not look far north or south for visible signs, including drastically lower river levels, unpredictable snow melts and longer droughts.

Despite these challenges, Albertans have a serious thirst. In 2009 Alberta’s water allocations totalled 9.89 billion m3. An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 2,500 m3, so Albertans can draw the equivalent of four million pools worth of water every year. Allocations, however, are different from water actually used. Based on 2005 data, Alberta’s licence holders (mainly municipalities, industry and agriculture) collectively used 34.5 per cent of what they were allocated. That is, they’ve typically used less than the amount they’re legally entitled to. That’s a good thing.

But as the province grows, so does demand. A 2007 Alberta Environment report predict water use will increase to almost 4 billion m3 by 2025. That’s a 21 per cent increase from use in 2005. Meanwhile, Alberta’s water supply is shrinking due to longer droughts, less snowpack and shrinking glaciers. The Athabasca glacier, for example—where the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan rivers originate—has retreated about 1.5 km and lost 1.5 times its total volume over the past century.

Effectively managing growing demand and shrinking supply will be no small feat, but the province is making strides. Through its Water for Life strategy—launched in 2003—the government has set three objectives: safe, secure drinking water; healthy aquatic ecosystems; and reliable, quality water supplies for a sustainable economy.

The pressing question is not whether these are good principles (they are admirable and articulate goals, and light-years ahead of some other provinces’); it’s whether they’re achievable. The demand on Alberta’s water comes from many quarters. Put a few farmers, oil and gas executives and city mayors in a room to discuss the issues, and you’ll soon realize their demands are not compatible. How do we balance competing priorities? Can we agree on the definition of a “sustainable” economy? Given Alberta’s desire for increased productivity, what would successful water conservation look like?

These questions baffle even the experts. What’s clear, however, is that continuing on the current trajectory isn’t an option. In the near future, demand and supply will not match up. Water conservation, then, can no longer constitute a polite suggestion to turn off the tap while brushing one’s teeth or to take a shorter shower. Alberta must define a conservation ethic—that is, decide how to manage its water.

Local water use is expected to rise 21 per cent by 2025. Meanwhile, Alberta’s water supply is shrinking.

Efforts such as the government’s recent Water Conversation campaign, to discuss Alberta’s growing water shortage, have met a mix of cautious optimism and outright skepticism. Of the experts I polled in recent months, many were glad to see the government reaching out and initiating tough conversations. Glenn Isaac, director of the preservationist group North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper, says the outreach component—discussions across the province—encourages him, but he cautions that public consultation is only useful if it results in workable policy.

Bob Sandford, on the other hand, doesn’t pull punches. The Canmore-based water expert and author of Cold Matters: The State and Fate of Canada’s Fresh Water, criticizes the effort, especially the campaign’s stated priority areas, which don’t explicitly integrate discussion about Alberta’s century-old licensing system (the one that determines how much water is allocated, and to whom). Sandford fears that Alberta’s water users will have to compete for a dwindling resource, and that industrial use will prevail over people. “Protecting individual or sectoral interests at the expense of the common good will create ineffective and unsupportable water policy,” he says. “Public dialogue is meaningless unless we realize this.”

But are actions speaking louder than words? Water efficiency has been improving in Alberta’s cities. Calgary’s goal starting in 2003, for example, was to reduce consumption by 30 per cent over 30 years. Gross per capita demand averaged 550 L from 1995 to 2005, but demand was down to 428 L per person by 2011 (strictly residential use was even lower). The City says it achieved this reduction through a combination of mandating water meters, proactively repairing water mains, subsidizing low-flush toilets, and other initiatives. 

Touted for its environmental awareness, the Town of Okotoks recently achieved 295 L per person and is counting on further reductions. Facing greater pressure than most local municipalities, the town encourages xeriscaping, has enacted strict outdoor watering bylaws and mandates low-flow fixtures in new homes as well as water meters for every residence.

Sandford says these small successes are “commendable,” but not much to celebrate when some European cities, such as Munich, use as little as 100 L per person per day. “Are we not deceiving ourselves when our best average municipal consumption is still 300 per cent more than a place where the standard of living is just as high?” he asks.

Fair enough. Goss agrees that municipalities can do a lot more to conserve, but he worries that prices are too low to make it a matter of much concern for citizens. “Water is nearly free [in municipalities],” he says. “There’s no incentive to spend money to use less of it.” Indeed, this is a national issue. As of 2001 Canada charges the least for water of any developed country: 40 cents per m3. Germany, at the other end of the table, charges citizens $1.91 for the same amount.

Conservation at the municipal level becomes more complicated when you combine the challenge of shifting public behaviours with the problem of limited revenue-generating ability and rampant growth. Still, municipalities in 2009 represented just 11.3 per cent of Alberta’s total water allocations—a significant withdrawal from rivers, but compared to other water users, a few drops in the bucket.

National media would have the world assume that blame for water scarcity in Alberta lies squarely on the shoulders of the oil and gas industry. Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), in particular, receives a lot of attention. SAGD uses steam in a horizontal-well system to recover bitumen. Producing one barrel of bitumen using this process requires about three barrels of water. What many may not know, however, is that the fresh water requirement in these operations is only about 0.5 barrels per barrel of bitumen produced. 

Indeed, while oil and gas produces just over one-quarter of Alberta’s GDP, almost 70 per cent of exports and 35 per cent of government revenues, the sector represents only 8.5 per cent of the province’s total water allocations. Oil sands projects recycle 80–95 per cent of the water they use. The majority of the water used in SAGD actually comes from groundwater, i.e., deep saline aquifers.

Regardless, industrial demand strains Alberta’s watersheds. While using saline water in SAGD operations saves precious river water, experts say we don’t know enough about Alberta’s groundwater supply—aquifers are deep underground, and to get there, water must move slowly between layers of rock. Groundwater is therefore tricky to measure and monitor. And as efficient as processes such as SAGD may be, the oil patch still draws heavily on rivers such as the Athabasca every year. The government now requires oil sands operators to limit withdrawals in times of low environmental flow.

Anything that slows production can increase costs and affect oil companies’ bottom lines. That might actually be good news. Pressure to produce and refine oil in an increasingly water-scarce environment encourages operators to invest in water-conservation research and provides a market for disruptive technologies that can be useful in other applications. 

For example, recycling and reuse technologies are lending themselves nicely to cross-sector cooperation. In 2010 Suncor’s Edmonton refinery drew 50 per cent of its water for operations from the City of Edmonton’s Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant, significantly reducing the amount of fresh water it withdraws from the North Saskatchewan River. This innovative approach makes sense on several levels. When we treat wastewater to the standard required of a refinery, rather than of a river, we conserve energy and save money. Sharing (or “reusing”) water also addresses the challenge of increasing restrictions on industrial water use, and reduces the strain on rivers and municipal infrastructure.

Sounds like a win-win, right? In fact, it’s a source of debate. Lorne Taylor, formerly Minister of Environment and now an adviser to Alberta WaterSmart, a water management company, agrees that reuse systems can have many benefits, including lower costs to municipalities and industry. But he says they ignore the value of “return flow”—i.e., water withdrawn from and returned to the same source. Assuring sufficient return flow is part of how we account for nature’s needs. “Because Alberta is water-short, [especially] in the south, people are looking at wastewater as a supply,” he says. “But if we send treated effluent to a refinery and that water doesn’t end up returning to a river, it puts more pressure on the source.” For example, water used this way can infiltrate into the ground and become part of an aquifer, or evaporate. “We don’t have enough information to guess what would happen if we [adopted reuse systems] across the province,” says Taylor.

The province’s other large industrial water user is coal-fired electricity. Alberta’s coal plants are built on rivers and lakes: Lake Wabamun, for example, supports several such facilities, including Transalta’s Sundance, the largest plant of its kind in western Canada. To turn coal into electricity, Sundance uses water to create steam for turning turbines and then cool and condense the discharged steam. The water is circulated through ponds before being released back into the lake. 

About one quarter of Alberta’s total water allocations are used this way—cycled through coal plants—which is three times the water used by all oil and gas operations combined. As with most oil and gas operations, almost all the water used in coal plants is eventually discharged back into the rivers and lakes it was drawn from. Still, when coal-fired plants withdraw massive volumes of water, even a small percentage lost to evaporation adds up. TransAlta estimates its net impact on Lake Wabamun is 9 million m3. Put another way, the power plant removes—and doesn’t return—the top 4.5 inches of the lake every year.

Some would like to see government take back licenses (or portions thereof) to keep water in the rivers.

But even after adding municipal water use to energy industry use, we’re still only talking about less than half of all water allocations in Alberta. Conservation’s big ticket, says Greg Goss, is irrigation. In 2009 a whopping 42.5 per cent of provincial water allocations were earmarked for irrigation. And since farmers tend to use a greater proportion of their allocations, says Alberta Environment, irrigated farming accounts for 60–65 per cent of all water actually consumed in the province. 

Another way farmers differ from other users is that most water doesn’t make it back to its source as return flow. Everything we export, including food, contains what industry terms “virtual” or “embedded” water. When crops are harvested, packaged and exported, they effectively transfer the water they contain to another watershed, probably in another part of the world. One could say that bulk water export is a hidden cost of the world’s food security. Water is also lost through evaporation and seepage.

For this reason, as well as due to shrinking river flows, Alberta’s irrigators are aiming for more crop per drop. As part of Water for Life, the province’s 13 irrigation districts along with six other major sectoral water users have agreed to aim for a 30 per cent increase in conservation, efficiency and productivity by 2015. “Even small gains in agricultural areas are big gains overall,” says Goss. 

But reducing irrigators’ water use will be tricky business. The world might function without oil, but it can’t continue without food. In the future, it’s possible that Alberta will be counted on to produce even more food for export if agricultural regions farther south suffer a loss of productivity due to a changing climate. Ron McMullin, executive director of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, says he expects the province’s farmers will increase their crop yields by 15 per cent by 2015. As long as food production remains a vital part of Alberta’s economy, the province seems unlikely to limit agricultural water withdrawals, adds Taylor. He says nothing in current legislation or conceptual frameworks would give credit to licence holders such as irrigation districts for simply leaving water in the rivers. And the Water for Life agreement is voluntary, he notes; there’s no legal recourse if its goals are not met. 

Alberta’s irrigators are, however, being proactive about water consumption. Brent Paterson, executive director of irrigation and farm water at Agriculture & Rural Development, says farmers have always adapted to a complex business, especially on the water side. “Growing products for the best return on investment is critical, and farmers understand that,” he says. 

Just getting water to the farm presents a number of challenges. In southern Alberta, for example, an 8,000-km canal system diverts water from rivers and conveys it to fields. Many sections of canal lose water due to seepage and evaporation; this accounts for some of agriculture’s low rate of return flow. To return more water to rivers and reduce evaporation and seepage, the government has converted almost 50 per cent of the system to closed pipelines. Paterson says this investment saved almost 50 million m3 of water from seepage between 1999 and 2008. Each year, a further 150 km of canal is converted to pipeline. Where it’s too expensive to turn canals into pipes, liners are added to prevent seepage and salinization. Automated controls and monitoring systems help manage supply and demand. The government provides irrigation districts with $24-million per year to improve infrastructure.

Once water gets to a farm, it must be distributed efficiently. Fields differ in size, slope and soil, each of which determines inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and water. Understanding these variables more precisely has helped irrigators make strides in the past few decades. For instance, McMullin says, there’s been a shift from traditional flood irrigation to new measures, such as low-pressure pivots, which he says are 82–84 per cent efficient. Paterson’s ministry is working with the U of A and McGill University to improve variable-rate irrigation, which allows farmers to define custom zones by soil type, topography, crop type and field obstacles so as to better control the amount of water applied. 

Additionally, says Paterson, while Alberta livestock requires forage crops with high water demand, such as alfalfa and grasses, farmers and ranchers are beginning to select crops with higher yield and less thirst.

It all sounds like progress—but the danger of efficiency gains is that they increase the availability of consumable water. As part of the productivity mandate of Water for Life, irrigation districts are using those water savings to increase acreage. “Irrigation districts have to look at [climate change forecasting] at the same time to ensure they don’t expand potential so much that it takes [Alberta] into the danger zone,” says Paterson.

Efficiencies also bring us back to the problem of decreased return flow. Ensuring there’s enough water to sustain the economy fulfills one Water for Life goal at the expense of another: preserving healthy aquatic ecosystems. Henning Bjornlund, Canada Research Chair in water policy and management at the University of Lethbridge, points out in a 2010 C. D. Howe Institute paper that increased efficiency will increase productivity but not necessarily meet Water for Life’s conservation objectives.

And so we’re back to that nagging question: What do we mean by water conservation? Dave McGee, senior water-policy and implementation manager at Alberta Environment, says it can be defined several ways. “When some people say ‘conservation,’ they mean using less water so the environment has more.” Others, he says, think of the impact on energy bills. Since electricity costs more than water, and we need it to pump water to our homes and businesses, many conservation campaigns are actually targeted to realize electricity savings. Still others equate water efficiency with increased productivity.

McGee says if one doesn’t properly track water use, any “conserved” water will likely be used to produce more widgets—that is, the more efficient we make our processes, the more products we can produce (recall “more crop per drop”). The government could require licence holders to conserve water at their own expense or it could use incentives, but, says McGee, whoever funds conservation efforts will expect something in return. If the government offers incentives, the public will need to know if it’s getting good value. This will require careful measurement of water use and possibly a reduction in the amount of water that licensees are currently allocated.

Right now, if a licence holder conserves water, they can use that water to increase their own productivity or transfer the conserved portion of their allocation to another user. Since Alberta no longer accepts water-allocation applications in the South Saskatchewan, Oldman and Bow River sub-basins, the transfer system has enabled licenced users in these areas to transfer “conserved” water. 

Critics worry the transfer system is evolving into an uncontrolled-market scenario. “Nobody wants to touch [the subject], but we need transparency,” says Bob Sandford. “International example suggests that if markets aren’t properly designed and lack appropriate and consistent oversight, the public may have to pay a ransom to get [their water] back.” He adds Alberta’s policymakers should re-examine their priorities. “I’d be a lot happier if measures that considered ecosystems, environmental flow, First Nations resolutions and conservation were implemented before Alberta finds itself in market circumstances hurried into existence by individual interests,” he says.

But McGee says the South Saskatchewan transfer system isn’t a market—yet. “We’ve set up the transfer system and are waiting to see how things move. If it works, government can participate.” Some experts monitoring Alberta’s emerging system would like to see government take back licences (or portions thereof), to keep more water in the most threatened rivers. For now, says McGee, the province will simply record the movement of conserved water.

Observers are also concerned that transfers may involve moving water from one basin to another, thus upsetting nature’s balance. Albertans may recall the 2007 uproar when contractors sought a water supply for CrossIron Mills, just north of Calgary. Amid much protest, Alberta Environment denied the mall’s application for water from the Red Deer River, but approved the daily transfer of 6,700 m3 from an allocation held by the Western Irrigation District, which draws water from the Bow.

Interbasin transfer, to be clear, is not a transferred allocation. Very few interbasin transfers have happened in Alberta, and each has required an act of the legislature. “The process is prohibitive,” McGee says. He stresses that a transfer is only approved if it won’t harm the environment. As an example, he cites an ongoing transfer of treated city water from Red Deer to Lacombe, which has had issues with groundwater quality. The two cities are actually in different basins, but only barely; Lacombe is just over the divide where surface runoff goes to the North Saskatchewan River. “Because it was treated water and there would be no issues of biota transfer from one basin to another, that transfer was approved,” McGee says. “We need mechanisms to support [these situations].” 

Suffice it to say, the interplay between allocations and conservation is complex. Part of moving forward on Alberta’s Water for Life strategy means accepting the province’s past decisions, says McGee. “We’re not starting with a clean slate,” he says. “To get to the next place, we have to be careful about not upsetting what we’ve got.” He says the idea is to set priorities before there’s a serious water shortage, so that a plan is ready when—or if—risk becomes reality. “It’s a process, not an exact science,” he says.

Water is not restricted by boundaries, of course; it flows freely between provinces and territories. This means Alberta’s decisions about how it manages water will impact shared watersheds such as the Mackenzie River basin. The province is negotiating bilateral agreements with each of Saskatchewan, BC and the Northwest Territories on responsibilities for the Mackenzie. Agreements may legally require Alberta to ensure that a certain amount of water flows north with the river’s current. The rules about water markets will need to take these agreements into account. Without proper oversight, Alberta could reduce water supply in other parts of Canada. Remember the disagreement between the farmers, executives and mayors? Throw a few provinces and a territory in there, too.

Most people agree that water conservation is necessary for Alberta. The volume of water the province consumes is simply not sustainable, and growth under the same old system is impossible. But what will a new system look like? This brings us back to priorities. After years of discussion and not much action, it’s apparent Alberta’s government is still conflicted about its conservation ethic.

Riverkeeper Glenn Isaac says leadership is the missing element. “Stakeholders and the public have stepped up,” he says, referring to the Water Conversation campaign. “We care about our water and we’ve lived up to our end of the bargain. The most important step is for Alberta Environment and the government to truly take this feedback to the next level: actionable policy. We need decision-makers that can actually make things happen.”

Without clear priorities, proper legislation and enforcement, and precise monitoring, the province is in real danger of running dry.

Kerry Freek is editor of Water Canada magazine. She writes about water in the context of economy, technology and the environment.

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