Water Law

As Albertans, we rely largely on our surface water for our quality of life. This water “supplies our drinking water, drives our industry, supplies our recreation, feeds our groundwater, and grows our crop. It maintains fisheries and is essential to Alberta’s biodiversity.” [1] Rural residents and some communities rely on groundwater for drinking and day to day activities.

With all of these critical uses, it would be surprising if any of you went a single day without relying on immediate access to our seemingly endless supply of clean water. Despite this, and perhaps because it genuinely seems like we will never run out, you probably think very little about how much water there really is or what is being done to protect it for our future generations.

Have you ever thought about how much water we have and where it comes from? Or if our water supply is in danger of running out?

Over the years, Alberta’s provincial governments have drafted countless pieces of legislation and policy, each attempting to determine how best to balance increasing water use with responsible water conservation. Often, these laws and regulations begin with grandiose claims that they will ensure easy access to clean water while also protecting our water sources.

However, as you have probably realized from reading our section on Fundamentals of Law, environmental law is more complex and difficult to implement than it may seem at the outset. Unsurprisingly, the ever-changing nature of water makes it even more difficult to manage. But manage it we must because for both human and environmental health, an abundance of fresh water is crucial and often water occurs where it is not needed and is scarce where it is needed most. The truth is that the water scarcity can occur in regions of Alberta particularly if we are ensuring that fish and aquatic systems are left sufficient water to thrive. This misconception that our water resources are here to stay has actually made water protection more difficult – if you cannot imagine water running out, what incentive is there for you to try and protect it?

Although Canada may be a relatively water-rich country, especially when compared to drought-riddled countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East, the continued use of water at our current pace will eventually lead to water scarcity – especially in the particularly dry areas of Southern Alberta. [2]

The Water Risk Atlas, a map that shows water scarcity around the world, is a good visual representation of the availability of water in any given area. The image below shows the overall water risk facing our western provinces; Alberta has the largest bright red section. Bright red means extremely high water stress levels or areas that are more vulnerable to changes in the climate, periods of drought, or other extreme weather events. Click here to go to their homepage.

Courtesy of World Resources Institute

Taking a closer look at this photo, you should be able to see that yellow means low risk, orange is medium risk, and red (like the area south of Edmonton) is high risk. [3] Most of central and southern Alberta is considered to be at medium risk.

Even beyond our provincial borders and in areas that are not quite as high-risk for water scarcity, a 2017 World Wildlife Fund Canada Study found that each of Canada’s 25 major watersheds is facing multiple environmental threats, affecting both their quality and quantity. They also found that there is little being done to fix this. [4]

It seems that the general belief that Canada is the land of milk and honey, a land with seemingly endless forests, rivers, and resources has created a false sense of water security.

This section will continue with a description of some of the legislation that is currently in effect, both provincially and federally, relating to water. Next, we will review the history of water law in the province and give you some real-life examples of water-related issues. Let’s get started!

While you read through this section, think about whether you think the current legislation is doing enough to protect our water.

What laws exist to manage and protect our water? >>

[1] Jason Unger, “In Water We Trust? Engaging Albertans in Restoration and Maintenance of Environmental Flows” Environmental Law Centre (2015) online: http://elc.ab.ca/media/103873/InWaterWeTrustELC.pdf.

[2] Matthew McClearn, “Fluid situation for Alberta reserves” The Globe and Mail (16 October 2016) online: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/showdown-over-water-looms-for-albertareserves/article32386029/.

[3] World Resources Institute, “Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas” online: http://www.wri.org/applications/maps/aqueduct-atlas/#x=-110.26&y=53.33&s=ws!20!28!c&t=waterrisk&w=def&g=0&i=BWS-16!WSV-4!SV-2!HFO-4!DRO-4!STOR-8!GW-8!WRI-4!ECOS-2!MC-4!WCG-8!ECOV-2!&tr=ind-1!prj-1&l=6&b=terrain&m=group.

[4] WWF Canada, “A national assessment of Canada’s freshwater: Watershed Reports” (2017) at 3 online: https://watershedreports.wwf.ca/#intro; Ivan Semeniuk, “Charting Canada’s troubled waters: Where the danger lies for watersheds across the country” (11 June 2017) The Globe and Mail online: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canada-fresh-water-review-1/article35262579/.