The Bog: The Alberta WaterPortal Blog

The Bog is where thoughts, opinions, discussion pieces, and action converge. Influential thinkers from the water community are invited to share their insights on current or controversial water topics. Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta WaterPortal.

Land-Use Planning for Watershed Health: Can Alberta’s Land-Use Framework Help?

Managing the cumulative effects of land-use change is necessary for keeping our watersheds healthy. The problem is that there are few incentives for land-use decision makers to address cumulative effects in land-use planning at a regional or watershed scale (i.e., beyond municipal boundaries). Furthermore, there is no legislation in Alberta that mandates the use of cumulative effects based thresholds or limits in land-use planning. But the province’s Land-use Framework (LUF) could help.

Under the LUF land use ‘thresholds’ could be set based on the capacity of watersheds to naturally provide ecological goods and services such as drinking water sources, flood mitigation, and groundwater recharge. In other words, planning for land-use change that fits within the ecological capacity of a watershed. This type of threshold based approach to land-use planning could become a powerful tool for protecting watershed health.

Extensive removal of topsoil and vegetation, disruption or destruction of natural drainage channels, and replacement of pervious surfaces (grass, trees) with impervious surfaces (concrete, asphalt, roofs) can impact the natural mechanisms within a watershed that provide invaluable goods and services. Over time, the cumulative effects of land-use change can push these natural mechanisms beyond their carrying capacity reducing watershed health.

Traditional, man-made or ‘pipes and pumps’ infrastructure has been the primary mechanism for water and wastewater treatment and management. While this type of infrastructure is vital for managing our water supplies and keeping pollutants out of our waterways, it is extremely expensive.

Canada’s municipal infrastructure deficit is $123 billion. The current deficit related to water supply, wastewater and stormwater systems stands at $31 billion for the existing capital stock, while new needs are estimated at $56.6 billion.

Water Exports

Opinion by Tom Huffaker, U.S. Consul General

As a Californian, I have always known that fresh water is a natural resource that can quickly pass from apparent plenty to scarcity in Western North America. As a Northern Californian, I was weaned on the resentment between the relatively water-rich north and the arid south, to which much Northern water is shipped.

During the droughts of the late 1970s, I lived through water rationing and brown lawns in metered Northern California and experienced frustration as parts of un-metered Southern California kept its lawns green with “our” water. While the “heroic” California civil engineering projects of an earlier era that transferred artificial rivers from North to South yielded real benefits for homeowners, farmers and consumers, they came with very real environmental costs. As a law student in California, I also learned that the way we allocated river water in the American West (prior use doctrine), differed from the eastern approach and is fraught with challenges as populations rose and our economy evolved from farming to a diverse agricultural-industrial-services-technology base.

With this experience with Western water scarcity I arrived in Calgary in mid-2007 to serve as U.S. Consul General in a region engaged in its own water debates.

Let me put it plainly, contrary to persistent rumors, the United States Government does NOT seek and has never sought trans-boundary bulk water transfers from Canada. Nor have I ever seen an economically viable concept for large scale water transfers. We recognize that we have water scarcity and inefficient use problems of our own and that we must solve with our own water resources. We also fully recognize that each country must find its own means of managing those resources.