Monday, February 19, 2024

Alberta's water problem

Alberta's oil and gas industry is widely considered (apart from in Alberta and maybe Saskatchewan) Canada's premier ecological and environmental embarrassment. It is our largest single source of greenhouse gases not to mention more general environmental degradation and pollution. Unfortunately, it is the province's sacred cow and, certainly while Danielle Smith and her ilk run the place, it will be protected tooth and nail, whatever bad press it garners for the province and the country.

However, another environmental disaster may be looming for Alberta that may completely eclipse Big Oil's depredations, and may bring the fossil fuel industry down with it, as well as the province's large agricultural sector. 

That problem is water, or, more accurately, the lack of it. Snowpacks are at all-time low levels. Glaciers are melting at record speeds, and some are disappearing all together. 51 major river basins are reporting critical water shortages due to low rainfall and high temperatures. Groundwater levels have reached record lows, and most reservoirs are at least 5 metres below normal waterlines (stranded boat launch docks, nowhere near the water they were built to access, are a common sight). Natural lakes and man-made reservoirs alike are at between 10% and 30% of capacity. "Unprecedented" forest fires wrack the province, and are only expected to get worse.

The culprit, of course, is mainly climate change, exacerbated by the oil and gas extraction and fracking industries. At the best of times, Albert's only has 2.2% of Canada's renewable fresh water, but it has nearly 12% of its population, a population level that has increased almost ten-fold over the last century, and continues to increase at least partly due to deliberate government encouragement. Premier Smith says she would like see the population double from its CURRENT levels. 

It doesn't help that 80% of Alberta's water flows north, while 80% if its population lives in the arid south of the province. And it's oil and agriculture sectors are huge water hogs. About 60% of all Canada's irrigation occurs in Alberta, one of the provinces that can least afford it. Its 6 million cattle has been reduced to about 4 million in recent years due to ... drought. Agriculture, oil sands development and highways expansion has destroyed up to 70% of the province's wetlands.

All of this was not unexpected. 18 years ago, a major report by respected water ecologists David Schindler and Bill Donaghue raised the alarm on Alberta's water situation. For a province with a historically precarious water footing, they pointed out, government policy over the last century or so has been cavalier to say the least. Back in 2006, they predicted an "unprecedented water crisis, and made several drastic recommendations which have been ignored ever since.

Meanwhile, climate change has got significantly worse, both Alberta and Sasaktchewan still have plans to expand their irrigation regardless of the drought, and the water demands of the oilsands just keeps increasing, with water-intensive fracking operations growing substantially too. Alberta may be in for a 20, 30, even 40 year drought, but the province's feckless politicians have their heads stuck firmly in the oilsands.

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