Balancing water usage

(Edmonton) As water availability and usage become issues of concern in the province, the University of Alberta is leading the way in finding success stories to help find better ways to handle a precious and dwindling resource.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Alberta Rural Development Network, U of A water policy researcher Lars Hallstrom is heading a project that will examine how rural communities have managed to balance water usage with commercial and population growth.

“Water is an important natural resource in the province, with extreme variability of supply both seasonally and geographically,” said Hallstrom, director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities and an associate professor in both the departments of resource economics and environmental sociology and social sciences at Augustana Campus.

The research project arose from a provincial rural needs assessment, which identified a knowledge gap in what strategies may or may not already be working for rural communities that are pressed for water.

The problem of enough water is not a new one, Hallstrom noted. As far back as 1863, it was recommended that the southern half of Alberta not be settled because it was so dry.

“Most of our water is where the people and demand are not; 85 per cent of water is in northern Alberta and most of the people are in the southern half of the province. The agricultural irrigation in southern Alberta is, in fact, some of the most intensive in the country,” Hallstrom said.

Compound that fact with population growth, variable supply due to decreasing snow pack, rising industrial demand for water and what Hallstrom terms an obsolete “first in time, first in right” water licensing system, “if you throw in a drought year, you have all the makings for a crisis.”

Some rural communities have, for a number of reasons, already run out of water, both from a regulatory standpoint and in practical terms since the water literally hasn’t been available. That in turn, threatens rural sustainability, he added.

“If you want a rural community to grow, or even survive, you need water.”
Working with an environmental consulting firm, the U of A will comb through water-related scientific studies, as well as online information and community-level documents from across the province, to find out what water management strategies have—or haven’t—worked for rural communities.

“This can help answer the question of where the success stories are, and why they worked,” Hallstrom said. Once that information is gathered, it will go to decision-makers in water policy and management, who will review and choose the strongest strategies. In turn, that knowledge will be shared through a provincial workshop with stakeholders such as watershed groups, water licencees, researchers and representatives from rural municipalities and counties to take back to their communities.