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NEWS: Harris warns of water markets in Alberta

The Bonnyville Nouvelle reports that, “For years now, many would consider the water situation in southern Alberta to be at a crisis point; water is scarce. Although the rest of the province is not at that point yet, according to Scott Harris, prairies regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, there is a desperate need to be proactive and update the way we allocate water in the province. Currently, water allocation in Alberta is based on a licensing system in which licence holders are allocated a certain amount of water to use. New water licences can still be issued anywhere in the province, except in southern Alberta, where water scarcity has led to the elimination of new water licences since 2006, through an approved water management plan developed by the Alberta government.”
“With no new water licences being issued in southern Alberta, water needed for new developments must be accessed through senior licence holders. Senior licence holders obtained their water rights through the century-old concept of first in time, first in right, which allocated water licences to many of the first settlers to arrive in Alberta. Cara Tobin, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment, explains how water transfers work in southern Alberta: ‘It is when one licence-holder conserves an amount of water within their licence and frees that water up so they can then transfer that water to a new use.’ She said the water could be used for things such as residential areas, industry, and golf courses.”

“Harris views this system as essentially a market system for water access. The Council of Canadians is one of more than 70 groups and organizations that have become part of the Our Water is Not for Sale network. The network is working throughout the province, trying to inform citizens and get them engaged in the process of changing Alberta’s water allocation system. …Allowing a de-regulated water market, where water is a commodity that is bought and sold, could lead to only those able to afford water, being able to access it, explains Harris. Without public or government oversight, water can be distributed without a guarantee that it gets to those who really need it – households, hospitals and the like. Moreover, Harris said, ‘We’re concerned with the process the government is taking…that it is almost exclusively looking at a market system as the main policy tool to allocate water.’ All options for water allocation should be investigated, not just a water market said Harris, adding, ‘Albertans are concerned about this and must be consulted as part of the process.’”

“The Government of Alberta announced a review of the water allocation system two years ago and commissioned three reports, which were completed by stakeholders and experts to help guide the government’s decisions. Tobin said the reports show that ‘the transfer system in place in southern Alberta is a pretty good system’ and that first in time, first in right is still relevant. But she added, ‘Right now these are just recommendations…absolutely no decisions will be made until the public has had a chance to participate.’”

“However, the reports were released last November and there has yet to be any scheduled public consultation on the matter. Harris said, ‘The government has promised and delayed a number of consultations. We think it’s the responsibility of the government to have these discussions before they get too far into the process…(because) the further you get into this process the more that has already been decided.’”

“Tobin (has) assured Albertans, ‘In the case of an extreme emergency, the minister of environment can take emergency measures to ensure Albertans have access to drinking water.’ However, Harris said it should not have to come down to an emergency situation, ‘We think that water allocation decisions should be based on a hierarchy of needs. So that access to drinking water would be prioritized over, say, building a golf course,’ adding, ‘A market system doesn’t allow for that. It says that whoever has the most money has preferential access to water resources.’ Water licences are held by a very small amount of people who are not accountable to the public, he said. ‘We think that water allocation should be a decision made by publicly accountable bodies.’”

“Provincially, the Our Water is Not for Sale network has already voiced its concerns, through an open letter sent to Minister Renner, about the lack of public consultation, the lack of options being looked at to update the water allocation system and the possibility of what they see as a de-regulated water market throughout Alberta. Furthermore, they hosted a seminar at the University of Alberta Oct. 26, called ‘The fight for water’. The seminar was not lacking concerned Albertans. In fact, over 450 people attended the seminar, filling the seats and standing room of the lecture hall. Those attending had their fears of water markets confirmed, with stories about the dire situation with Australia’s water, the riots in Bolivia caused by privatized water, and other stories about the detriments of de-regulated water markets.”

The news article is at http://www.bonnyvillenouvelle.ca/article/20101116/BNV0801/311169984/-1/BNV/our-water-might-be-for-sale. The Nouvelle is read in Bonnyville, Fort Kent, Ardmore, Cold Lake, La Corey, Iron River and Glendon, an area with a combined population of nearly 30,000 people.

For campaign blogs on the threat of water markets in Alberta, please go to http://canadians.org/campaignblog/?s=%22water+market%22+%2B+%22alberta%22.