(Rural Roots Canada) – The largest water-sharing agreements in Alberta’s 118-year history are now in place ahead of a potentially severe drought this summer. 

Following several dry years compounded by the effects of El Niño, which delivered a warm and relatively dry winter across southern Alberta, the Prairies, and across Canada, more than three dozen of Alberta’s largest water users have agreed to cut back on water usage.

“With these agreements, Albertans are once again coming together when times get toughest,” says Rebecca Schulz, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Protected Areas. “They will help make the most of our limited water supplies and make every drop count if a severe drought hits this summer.”

Despite recent snowfall that provided only a temporary reprieve, the winter snowpack remains below average. Many rivers across the province are at diminished levels, while multiple reservoirs languish below capacity. 

Following negotiations with the government, 38 of the largest and oldest water licensees in southern Alberta have voluntarily agreed to rescue water usage should severe drought conditions develop throughout the spring and into the summer. These groups represent up to 90 per cent of water allocated in the Bow and Oldman basins and 70 per cent in the Red Deer River basin. The collaborative effort aims to ensure more Albertans have access to water during droughts, mitigating the adverse impacts on communities, the economy, and the environment.

“For many years, Alberta’s irrigation districts have been collaborating with the Government of Alberta and other water licence holders in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) to progress responsible water use within the SSRB,” says Alberta Irrigation Districts Association chair Alex Ostrop in a statement. “The 2024 water-sharing agreements continue this important co-operation and put into action irrigation districts’ longstanding commitment to providing water for human use and livestock sustenance in times of extreme drought.”

water-sharingAs a part of the agreements, several municipalities in central and southern Alberta have committed to reducing water consumption by five-and-10 per cent. Those municipalities include the cities of Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, and the towns of Drumheller and Stettler. Industries are committing to using only the minimum volume of water necessary for safe, reliable operations. Additionally, irrigation districts vow to prioritize water allocation, ensuring equitable access among users.

Lethbridge mayor Blaine Hyggen says these agreements are the culmination of time, effort and collaboration between many stakeholders. 

“We will continue working with our regional water partners, and the province, to ensure this vital resource is used efficiently and responsibly.”

These collaborative endeavours are not static but adaptive, subject to real-time adjustments as conditions evolve. Water amounts under the agreements will be updated every two weeks based on the latest water supply forecast.

Recently, in a conversation with Rural Roots Canada, Dr. Guillaume Lhermie, Director of the Simpson Centre for Food and Agriculture Policy at the University of Calgary, says Alberta is in for a challenging growing season as the risk of severe drought increases with each passing day.

“It will be a rough situation this year. We already know the forecast is quite depressing.”

READ MORE: The Consequences of Severe Drought for Alberta

The government says it will receive peak snowpack data in late April. Once the data is in, government and water users will meet regularly to assess next steps.