March 22, 2021

Equity is key to the future of Alberta’s watersheds, experts say

UN World Water Day: Sustainability lies in access for all, and it goes beyond drinking water
Jasper National Park
By Johny Goerend via unsplash

We each think of the “value” of water differently: it could be the cost to pay your water bill, the importance of nearby lakes and rivers for fishing and hunting, or the safety of having clean water to drink. 

For World Water Day 2021, the United Nations wants us to think about how we value water, and the ways it benefits our lives. 

If we want to continue to have access to water in all the ways we value, UCalgary experts say that equity needs to be the goal: equitable access to water, equitable opportunities to have a say in the future of our watersheds, and equitable consideration of sustainable approaches. 

Guaranteeing water access for individuals

“Right now, we value access to water for certain activities and areas of industry, but some players are at a deficit, in particular individual Canadians,” explains Victoria Goodday, research associate in the School of Public Policy. “Canada adopted the UN declaration of water and sanitation as a human right, but we haven’t legislated the right to water in Canada, so there is no legal framework to ensure individual access.” 

Goodday cites the 58 long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities across Canada as evidence of this inequity. “Their basic rights are not being fulfilled, and we as a society are not doing a good job of valuing that access.”

Industry players, on the other hand, have licences in place to ensure their water allocations are put aside, guaranteeing them the right to withdraw certain amounts of water even in times of drought.

Opportunities to share your values with decision-makers

The equation gets more complex when you consider the value of industry activities that require a great deal of water, such as agriculture, oil and gas, or mining. Their value can be perceived as greater than the value of the long-term health of the watershed.

Shaun Fluker, associate professor in the Faculty of Law, identifies Alberta’s proposed coal mining expansion as an area where these perceptions of value are irreconcilable. “Opponents to more coal mining along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains are saying that the government is giving inadequate consideration to the values of water inherent in all the other ways we use and rely on it,” he says. 

This is where equitable access to decision-making over how we allocate and use water comes into play. “As scarcity of the resource becomes an increasing reality, it is a fiction to believe there is a balance to be struck where everybody is going to be happy with a decision to allocate access to water,” Fluker says.

“Sometimes the best you can hope for in a democracy such as ours is a proper, open, deliberative forum where one side doesn’t have preferred access to decision-makers over the other, and everyone has the same access to information, and ability to influence the outcome.” 

Consideration and support for sustainable water management

Robust impact assessments are key to advocating for the value of water in these situations, says Goodday. “We don’t go far enough to look at how the ecosystem will be impacted by a multitude of projects over the long term,” she says. Goodday believes that impact assessments paired with measuring the benefits of resilient watersheds will put the value of water on a more equal standing with the value of industry development.

For example, a wetland can help prevent droughts and flooding, and serve as biodiversity hotspots, bringing significant value to our society. “If we were adequately measuring value, when regulators are assessing costs and benefits that show them the monetary value of leaving the watershed intact, they will be factoring that in, instead of counting it as zero,” says Goodday.

Innovations in water efficiency have a role to play as well, and researchers at Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) are working to find practical ways for industry to safely reuse their water. 

“Wastewater reuse can bring in a new holistic, approach to water management,” explains Christine O’Grady, program co-ordinator at ACWA. “It provides value through energy and transportation savings, reduced fees for water withdrawal and lowered monitoring costs.” 

“Promoting awareness about the value of water will encourage broader participation by industry, and the creation of sustainable practices that are supported by science,” she says.

Fluker says these moves will only continue to grow in importance. “You talk to anybody who has spent a lifetime fishing the freshwater streams along the eastern slopes, and the story is always the same,” he says. “The fish are disappearing; the stream doesn’t run as clear. That’s just the impact of too many uses on the landscape and giving preference to certain approaches to valuing water over others, or not valuing water at all, frankly.”

Attend a virtual World Water Day event

Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) is a globally unique test bed and research facility where researchers, municipalities and industry can de-risk wastewater treatment and monitoring technologies. It is a partnership between the University of Calgary and The City of Calgary, as part of the Urban Alliance.