By Darcy Henton, Calgary HeraldEDMONTON — Alberta Environment is set to launch a public consultation on water issues in 20 communities, but critics say a leaked government document suggests the process is shaping up to be a million-dollar sham.Public Interest Alberta said Thursday the water strategy document, obtained from an undisclosed source, shows the Alberta government is steering the consultation away from controversial issues and limiting discussion at the three-hour consultation meetings to 30 minutes.“This is just fulfilling Alison Redford’s promise to consult on water, but really at the end of the day the major decisions will be made behind closed doors by people with vested interests,” said Public Interest Alberta (PIA) executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon.He said the planning document states that controversial issues like selling water to the U.S. or changing the century-old system of allocating water rights on a ‘first in time, first in right basis’ are “off the table.”“It’s just a public relations exercise,” said Moore Kilgannon. “They can put a tick in the box at the end of the day and say they consulted Albertans, but they’re not actually going to let them talk about policy.”Public Interest Alberta fears the governing Tories are set to establish a provincial water market to sell water licences, he said.But a senior Environment Department official said Thursday that Albertans can talk about whatever they want during the meetings or advise the government of their views through other forums that will be available during the consultation.Shannon Flint, an assistant deputy minister of policy in Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said that just because the department has decided not to consult Albertans on the first in time, first in right water allocation system “doesn’t mean people can’t bring that up.”“If that’s what is bugging them, we’re happy to hear what they have to say about that,” she said.Flint said Albertans can raise the issue about setting a price for water, but the province hasn’t yet made any policy decisions on the issue. She rejected criticism the consultation is merely a PR exercise.She said the allocation system was left out of the list of priority discussion topics because Alberta intends to honour its commitment to historic water licence holders.“We’ve heard that loud and clear from stakeholders,” she said. “They do actually like the current system but how we manage water into the future, like do we go to water conservation objectives or storage options in the future, that’s really where we want to focus the discussion.”Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell said that rather than encouraging discussion on important issues, the government appears to want to muffle the debate.Leaving out a discussion of how water is allocated in the future is a mistake, she said.“That really is an urgent and overdue issue,” she said.“The historic frontier-based mentality of handing out water licences has meant that in southern Alberta, in very populated basins like the Bow, irrigation districts control the lion’s share of water. We need to face that head on.”Campbell said there must be discussion about an alternative system that ensures sufficient water to sustain ecosystems and for human consumption. She was also concerned about the lack of time for meaningful discussion of the issues.Environmental scientist Bill Donahue, a director of science and policy for the advocacy group Water Matters, said the biggest problem facing Albertans is the growing demand for water and the declining supply.If that isn’t even on the table, he said, it will severely limit the value of the consultation.“Water management and water shortages are probably going to be the biggest issue this province faces over the next 30, 40, 50 years,” he said.“We need to deal with this in a way that puts everything on the table because if we pull the most controversial things off the table, we just nibble around at the edges of the problem.…It is a big problem and it’s only going to get bigger.”The consultation was promised by Redford during her Tory party leadership bid and during last spring’s election campaign.The four “priority” topics for discussion, according to the strategy document, are the “appropriate” use of water in hydraulic fracturing in the oilpatch, ensuring efficient and effective water management, maintaining sustainable drinking water and wastewater systems and maintaining healthy lakes.An attached briefing note says current challenges include the uncertainty around the availability of water licences for growing communities, the availability of water for oilsands development, the increasing amounts of water being used to produce unconventional oil and gas, and the impacts of algae blooms on Alberta lakes.The public meetings are expected to begin in late February and end before farmers begin spring seeding, Flint said.She said it is unlikely the government will be in a position to introduce water legislation in the fall sitting of the legislature.By Darcy Henton, Calgary [email protected]This article was published in the Calgary Herald on January 11, 2013. Read the article on the Calgary Herald website.