Bjornlund study looks at water scarcity

Alberta faces water scarcity challenges that make it a bellwether region for better water management policies, according to a study recently released by the C.D. Howe Institute and created by University of Lethbridge economics researcher Dr. Henning Bjornlund.

In The Competition for Water: Striking a Balance among Social, Environmental, and Economic Needs, Bjornlund writes that without a modern system for reallocating access to water, particularly from prior license holders to new users, Alberta's economic development and its ecosystems could be threatened.

"The commentary is my vision of how water management and allocation policies in Alberta can be reformed," Bjornlund said. "The information is informed by all my work both in Alberta and in Australia, and not least my involvement in the ministers Advisory group last year — which provided advice to the Minister of the Environment on a new water management and allocation policy for Alberta."

His findings and policy recommendations have potential application to other regions of Canada where water scarcity is a growing issue, including some watersheds in Ontario, the southern parts of the Prairie provinces, and in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.

The challenge of dealing with water scarcity is nowhere better illustrated than in Alberta, he said. The province is home to 60 per cent of all irrigation in Canada and has a fast-growing population and economy.

Professor Bjornlund discusses how water markets could be used in the Alberta context and what supporting institutions would be necessary to enable them to operate effectively and fairly.

"For example, irrigation controls about 80 per cent of all water allocated in southern Alberta. Hence, there is little doubt that the consensus in the wider community is that some water needs to be reallocated out of irrigation to meet new needs, including those of the environment," Bjornlund said. "This will naturally impact irrigators and the communities depending on irrigation as their economic engine. How severe this impact will be depends on how such reallocation is carried out."

"The most pressing task for the Alberta government," he writes, "is to define waters within each watershed that need to be protected to secure environmental and other public benefits."