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Alberta faces water crisis, looks to water markets

The Globe and Mail reports (on page A3) that, “Precipitation shortages, compounded by the increased demand of a booming economy and growing population, have left Alberta with an unprecedented water crisis – one that comes at a critical time, with the province conducting a review of its water-management system amid booming growth.”

“Alberta currently has a first-in-time, first-in-right (FITFIR) system that puts the longest-tenured water users at the front of the line, regardless of whether they’re a municipality or a factory, whether they need their full allotment, and what conservation efforts a user is making.”

“It allows the trading of surplus water, though that ‘uptake has been very limited,’ wrote Henning Bjornlund, the Canada Research Chair in Water Policy and Management, in a C.D. Howe report released this month.”

“In a drought, the system leaves new economic development and younger, growing municipalities in a bind. They are now scrambling to buy extra water rights.”

“The province needs to switch to a so-called share system that allocates water use based on need, says Joe Obad of the Water Matters advocacy group, which wants to see the province identify and protect minimum levels in each body of water, then split any surface water.”

In June 2009, Fast Forward Weekly reported that, “the provincial government (in Alberta) is poised to develop a full-fledged water market — the first of its kind in Canada — making water rights easier to buy and sell, sparking a politically charged debate on whether or not water should be a commodity. The government says everything is on the table as it reviews its century-old water licensing system, but those familiar with the discussions say the province is heading towards an expanded, more fully developed market.”

“Alberta already has a small water market that sprung up in 2006, when the provincial government, realizing it had over-allocated water, closed southern Alberta river basins to new licences. The move forced growing municipalities with junior licences to look to irrigators and other senior licensees for water, but both buyers and sellers say the transfer process is laborious and needs streamlining.”

In November 2009, the Edmonton Journal reported that, “Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, said Alberta could be about to make a big mistake. ‘It looks like the province is going to be the first in Canada to move to a market-based solution for water.’ Barlow, said that’s what has happened in Chile, Spain, Australia, and California. ‘It’s a big concern because the public loses control of something essential for life and it becomes a market commodity. …We need to have such a strong model of conservation and a notion of equity in access to it. And instead Alberta is moving to a (system of) leave a little bit in the ground, we’ll have that base amount, and then everything else is a free-for-all put out to the market.”

Barlow has also stated, “Letting the market decide who will have access to water violates the public trust doctrine, a principle of common law which regards water as belonging equally to all peoples and managed by governments on their behalf.”

National water campaigner Meera Karunananthan and Prairies organizer Scott Harris recently hosted a roundtable meeting in Edmonton with key groups to discuss a campaign to counter the threat of water markets in Alberta. To read Karunananthan’s blog on this meeting, please go to

The Globe and Mail adds, “The province has not yet decided whether to modify the FITFIR system or to overhaul it altogether, but it will hold public consultations before acting, says Alberta Environment spokeswoman Cara Tobin.”

In November 2009, the Medicine Hat News reported that, “The province will engage the general public in Alberta-wide public meetings on the long-term sustainability of provincial water resources next summer.”

Campaign blogs on this issue can be read at,, and

The full Globe and Mail article is at