Calgary Herald: Water policy a priority for Alberta’s new environment minister

Alberta’s new Environment and Water minister says long-awaited public discussions on a system for divvying up southern Alberta’s scarce water resources will be coming in 2012.

The newly appointed Diana McQueen, MLA for Drayton Valley-Calmar, said public consultations on water – and southern Alberta’s current market for buying and selling limited water licences – is one of the top priorities in the new portfolio.

In an interview, McQueen said she wants the consultations to lead to improvements to what she describes as an already solid system that feeds agriculture, cities, towns and industry in the most populated region of the province.

“We’ve got a system that’s worked very well over the last 100 years,” McQueen said. “We want to make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

McQueen said her department would release some educational documents on water next year to prompt discussion on water – but already the province’s new premier has waded into the issue.

At a leader’s dinner in Medicine Hat earlier this month, Alison Redford suggested she doesn’t like the idea of going further down the path of putting a price on water, saying “it’s not the way I think we should go.”

However, Redford added she wants an open conversation on the issue where Albertans make the decision as to how to proceed.

Those with an interest in Alberta’s water supplies have long been waiting for some kind of clarity. It was more than three years ago when long-serving former environment minister Rob Renner said that public consultations on re-vamping the province’s water allocation system would go ahead with 18 months.

“Water policy has been stalled for the last several years,” said Bob Sandford, an Alberta water expert and author who chairs Canada’s participation in the United Nations Water for Life Decade.

“We’re not the water policy leaders that we think we are.”

Water issues are especially charged in southern Alberta, where almost every river, lake and stream has been closed to new water licence requests since 2006. Since new licences are no longer readily available from the government, a market has sprung up with 60 licences bought and sold in the last five years.

The issue is intensified by debate over Alberta’s century-old “first-in-time, first-in-right” water system, which gives the oldest water licence holders first dibs on supplies. Some of the oldest and most senior licence holders — and therefore those who wield the most water power — are irrigation districts for southern Alberta farmers, and the city of Calgary.

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