Blog | October 06, 2011

The AUMA is taking a sober look at water licenses, resources and the impact on urban areas

By Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Public Interest AlbertaPrinted in Vue WeeklyWhen over 500 city councillors and mayors got together at their annual convention in Calgary, it was an opportunity to drink some coffee and beer with a number of them and chat about the future of the most important liquid in Alberta: water.Last week, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA)—the umbrella organization that represents all of Alberta's cities and towns—initiated a vital discussion about the future of water policy in Alberta that should matter to everyone.The AUMA released "Water Primer and Discussion Paper," which looks at many issues facing access to clean, safe drinking water. The paper explores current and future policies on how we decide which stakeholders have licences to take water from our rivers and how to best preserve this limited resource in the face of growing demands and declining water levels due to climate change. In particular, the paper discusses the pros and cons of the provincial government's plans of establishing a market to allocate water throughout Alberta.Environment Minister Rob Renner and many other ministers and PC leadership candidates were at the AUMA convention to speak to and answer questions from the delegates. While it remains to be seen who is going to become the next environment minister, one thing is certain: the PC party is planning to convince Albertans that we need to create a water allocation market. Premier-designate Alison Redford has already been quoted in the media saying she is, "Open to having water markets where necessary" and that she would set up, "An expert panel to present options to Albertans."Many people are unaware that the province has already established a water market in the South Saskatchewan River Basin. Any municipality, farmer or large business that needs water can no longer get a license from the province. Instead, they must purchase this license from an existing license holder. While the government says that this encourages water conservation, the net effect is to encourage existing licence holders that have been given the right to take water from our rivers for free, to sell off any excess water they are not using to the highest bidder. Needless to say, this puts even more pressure on our rivers and makes sure water will only go to those with the most money.The AUMA report shows that many cities have been proactive and are investing in infrastructure improvements that better utilize water and cleans the water to be put back into the hydrological cycle. The problem for many cities is that the costs of meeting new water and waste water management regulations are being put on municipalities. Norm Boucher, the mayor of Medicine Hat, estimates that new standards could cost his city as much as $100 million.Shawn Patience, the mayor of Fort McLeod has very real concerns about the water market. "We are using around 70 percent of our current water license but this will soon be used up as the town will be growing if the new RCMP college is ever built. We tried to purchase more water rights but the province told us that we could not until we became more efficient. In the end, the water market is going to pit cities against farmers—there has to be a better way."While water issues are most contentious in Southern Alberta, people in Edmonton and across the province may soon be forced into a provincial water market if the corporate lobbyists are successful in convincing the provincial government to go down this road.Linda Sloan, Edmonton city councillor and newly-elected president of the AUMA, says, "I have never understood the logic of turning one of our essential resources into a private commodity. I believe that cities and towns will want to see a better system that prioritizes the needs of people and the environment, not just for those with the deepest pockets who will end up controlling our water."I also had a chance to speak with Paul Hinman and Guy Boutilier from the Wildrose Party, who were also hanging around the AUMA convention. Paul Hinman was quoted in the media earlier saying about water markets, "Albertans have spoken out loudly about it. It's divisive on regions, on industry and on people." However, when I asked him to clarify what he meant by these earlier quotes, he said he thought that "the current system does not allow the market to function properly so he thinks it would work better if the free market was allowed to work efficiently."The AUMA is looking for feedback on its water discussion document by the end of the year, so the time is now to inform people and speak out to our city councils about the serious implications of a water market. Similarly, if Alison Redford follows through on her plan to set up an expert panel then we need to get ready to join this conversation.After all, we should not just let the lobbyists for the global water companies and market fundamentalists be the one's buying the politicians their drinks.By Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta and member of the Our Water Is Not For Sale steering committee.

This article was published in Vue Weekly on October 6, 2011. Read the full article on the Vue Weekly website.