BY ELISE STOLTE, EDMONTON JOURNAL July 11, 2013
EDMONTON – Most Albertans believe the province should put river health first when it comes to handing out water rights, and human consumption should take priority over businesses during a drought, according to a new poll released Thursday.
Only 22 per cent said they would support a market-based system to allocate water rights.
A lobby group called Our Water is Not for Sale sponsored the phone survey, which followed up on Alberta’s public consultation on water this spring. The group said Alberta is considering a market-based approach to allocating water among users in Alberta and argues that approach won’t value human and ecological needs the way Albertans want.
“We think these results clearly indicate Albertans don’t support a move to an expanded water market, and that they’re really strongly opposed to water licence holders making a profit off something they’ve been given historically for free,” said Scott Harris, regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, one of the lobby group partners.
“Albertans want the government to implement a public water management system that prioritizes human needs.”
Most water basins in the drier southern half of the province have been closed to new allocations since 2006. Shortly after, the CrossIron Mills mall north of Calgary paid $15 million to a nearby irrigation district to get access to water the farmers weren’t using.
At about the same time, the provincial government started looking at options for an expanded water market and published three reports looking at those options in 2009.
This spring it ran a provincewide public consultation looking at ways to better “share” water, among other topics. Before the water consultation, the province said it would not consider selling water to other jurisdictions or changing the “first in time, first in right” principal that currently governs which water licences are honoured first in a drought, said Jessica Potter, spokeswoman for Alberta Environment.
In the phone survey, 83 per cent of respondents said they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “We need to have a water allocation system that prioritizes the health of rivers based on scientific requirements.”
Seventy-four per cent said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “municipalities should be given priority access to water for human needs, even if this means that some businesses like the energy industry cannot access all of the water they need in a time of drought.”
Twenty-two per cent said they would support a system to let the market decide who gets water, and only nine per cent said farmers or businesses should be allowed to sell the unused parts of their water licences for profit, even if they originally got the licence for free. Eighty-five per cent said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.
Harris said if businesses and farmers are allowed to sell unused portions of their water licences it would quickly drive up water use in some of the driest areas of the province.
Ricardo Acuna, executive director of the Parkland Institute, said the government needs to establish scientifically supported baselines for each river so that businesses are not allowed to withdraw any water when levels get too low. This would ensure fish habitat and the river ecosystems are protected.
Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen was not available for comment Thursday.
The phone survey run by Environics reached 831 adult Albertans between June 14 and 22. With that sample size, it’s considered accurate within 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.