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.
Challenges and Solutions in Acquiring Water for Housing Development
By Lorraine Nicol, Ph.D
A facet of water management which greatly interests me as a researcher is the challenges involved in satisfying competing demands for water, especially given the province’s fixed licensed water allocation framework. To some extent, my research has become more and more finely focused on one singular question: how effectively are users navigating the water market in water basins that are closed to new licensed water allocation applications?
My most recent project focused on housing developers in the Calgary region. It was funded by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation. The research was prompted by an earlier, 2015, study of water management within Rocky View County. In that study (entitled ‘Challenges and Potential Adaptation Strategies of Rural Water Co-ops: An Alberta Case Study’) I found preliminary evidence that housing developers in Rocky View were very pessimistic about the future of their industry, given the challenges they face in acquiring licensed water allocations for their developments.
By Rishichhibber (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The more recent study explored water challenges in more depth by expanding the number of municipalities to include Rocky View County, M.D. Foothills, and the Town of Okotoks. The study involved interviews with 15 developers working in these municipalities.
The study considered four main lines of inquiry:
(a) developers’ views of water challenges;
(b) the nature and source of the problem;
(c) the consequence of water challenges; and
An additional dimension of the study involved a preliminary assessment of the potential impact a decline in housing construction could have on the real estate sector.
The study’s finding confirmed my earlier suspicion that challenges for developers are prevalent. In addition this study found that, for many developers: acquiring water is their main issue; housing development is now, or will be in the future, negatively affected; water has become politicized; and housing prices are absorbing the top dollar developers are paying for water licenses.
The study specifically found:
- 100% of the developers interviewed believe there are challenges in acquiring licensed water allocations for housing development in the three municipalities under study;
- 73% stated acquiring a licensed water allocation is the ‘primary issue’ for developers;
- 60% of interviewees believe water management in the region is political, to the detriment of the housing industry;
- Another 53% believe the source of the problem also relates to government processes;
- 87% of developers believe water challenges are having a negative effect on the industry, either now or in the future;
- Two-thirds of developers say the cost of acquiring water licenses increases the price of homes.
Photo: che at Czech Wikipedia Adjustment: Li-sung at Czech Wikipedia (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The solution to water challenges in the region is easy to identify but difficult to implement. All developers believe a solution lies in working together as a region under an umbrella organization. However, in studying regionalism for my Ph.D dissertation (the Calgary Regional Partnership in particular), history and experience tell us that some regional models work better than others, depending on the dynamics in the region.
Developers believe a regional framework would not only help re-allocate water but also alleviate the high cost of water and wastewater treatment facilities if the cost of such facilities could be shared. However, developers are also aware of the confrontational environment amongst some municipalities in the Calgary region and are therefore also cognizant of how difficult a workable regional model is to craft.
Dr. Lorraine Nicol is a Research Associate in the Economics Department, University of Lethbridge. Her expertise is in water and city-regionalism, participatory processes in water management, Alberta water issues and policy, and water markets. To see a list of her publications click here.
Finding resonance: Alberta's youth and water literacy in the age of technology
By Hana Mason
I am part of the 'tech generation' - born and bred at the turning point of computer technology. I remember the changes—from playing reading games on my parent's huge Microsoft computer to getting my first iPod Nano, from flip phones to larger-than-life smartphones. There seems to be a belief that because my generation grew up with technology, we are tied eternally and unconditionally to our phones. If you ask any of us, we'll most likely deny such allegations, but I wonder what the real answer is. Have we abandoned our exploratory roots of our surrounding environment? Or have our relationships with our environment changed with the development of technology?
I will be the first to admit many of my day-to-day choices revolve around whether or not it’ll make a good Instagram! But I also believe that even if some part of me is drawn to a hike just for the photo of the view, some other, deeper part of me is drawn to it for the view itself—for the experience. You see, my peers and I still experience a strong connection to nature. From camping and visiting family cabins to summer camps and visits to community lakes, we're never so tied to the world of the internet that we don't have a call to the wild.
Image courtesy of myself (my favourite place to ride my bike!)
In considering my time on and off the internet, I realize—despite my avid belief that my generation's obsession isn't entirely encompassing—I haven't had many discussions with my peers about water-related, or even simply environment-related, issues.
The last time I learned anything new about water conservation was my last field trip to a wetland, which was probably six or seven years ago. So, I decided to ask my friends about water.
What are your connections to water? What do you know about water issues? What does water mean to you? Before I reached out to my friends, I asked myself these questions. I'm going to be completely honest – I know almost nothing about water issues. But I do have a connection to my environment. My personal water story has been mainly to do with summer camp. I learned to canoe at camp. I learned teamwork, determination, and an appreciation for natural rivers and lakes. Besides that, spending endless summer hours by the lake have kept me always looking from my screen back to nature, whether it is in search of the perfect profile picture or a way to satisfy my nostalgia.
As for my friends and peers' responses to my water questions, I received varied, but passionate, results.
Emily F. grew up on the east coast, but once she moved west, she found a love of kayaking and canoeing. Exploring the Alberta wilderness, whether it be paddling or hiking, has become a huge part of her life. "It’s a really nice break," she tells me, "I'm not really thinking about the things I'm supposed to be worrying about here."
Image courtesy of Emily F. (from one of her many adventures)
The stress of school, work and social life can be overwhelming, particularly in our constantly connected world. That being said, Emily finds the social media platforms she's a part of let her connect with other hiking and paddling enthusiasts. This makes it easier to find trails and rivers to visit. Despite this however, she finds herself uninformed about water and environmental issues and literacy. "I'm not oblivious, but I feel like there's information missing" she says, rating her water literacy a six out of ten.
Kate S. also grew up around water. She spent most of her early life in Toronto, and the vast difference between the concrete jungle and the spread-out landscape of Calgary, where her backyard is a community lake, has come to be very important to her.
"We've been so blessed, not everywhere is like this," she tells me. However, Kate has mixed feelings towards the affects of social media on her experience with the environment. She tells me she finds people to be too connected and that certain technologies allow people to never leave their houses. On the other hand, she finds the Instagram trends of fun hikes and great views create an environment where we are socially rewarded for going outside.
I ask her what she knows about water-related issues. In a similar response to Emily and myself, the answer is very little. It seems my generation knows the basics for water conservation – don't let the water run when you're brushing your teeth, take shorter showers – but we don't really comprehend the scope.
"Because I don't really see the first hand affects," Kate explains, "it doesn't really resonate." This seems to be a popular explanation for our relative apathy – we have such easy, thoughtless access to clean water here in Alberta that we can't even imagine what life would be like if it became unavailable. We view water scarcity as a far-away thing for developing countries, not for ourselves. Why would it resonate?
Much like my other two interviewees, Drew R. grew up loving water and hanging out in nature. He loves swimming and boasts, "I could swim before I could walk!" But after a traumatic experience last year and a growing love for social media, Drew spends considerably less time outdoors, and much less time swimming. Despite this, he explains that technology has allowed him to learn a lot more about bodies of water far away from where he lives. He has entertained the thought, "Since I don't live anywhere near an ocean it's not really the kind of thing I need to worry about", but he rates his water literacy a seven out of ten, and he wants to learn about pollution, water filtration, and how to "help and do my part to keep our water safe and clean."
Image courtesy of Drew R. ("my favourite" he calls it)
I set out to prove something with this blog—that my generation isn't entirely tied to our phones, and that we have a deep rooted connection to our environments. With so many different perspectives and views, the only thing I could really prove was my generation has opinions. Like other generations, everyone I talked to had something to say.
At the end of it all, I think I can sincerely say my generation still cares about our environment, and we're trying our best to use the advanced technology we've been given to our advantage. With the evolution of technology, our relationships with our environment, and the issues pertaining to it, will change too. The challenge is finding a way to make the pressing issues matter to us. We already care, now we must find that deeper resonance.
Hana is a summer student with the Alberta WaterPortal Society. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with friends. She will be moving to Victoria, B.C. to study Writing at the University of Victoria in September 2016.
World Water Day – Sharing the Nexus
By: Lindsay Kline and Victoria Pleavin
Every year on March 22nd, citizens from all over the globe celebrate World Water Day to recognize the importance of this vital resource. Established in 1993 and led by the United Nations (UN), World Water Day continues to shed light on water issues and opportunities for taking action to advocate for sustainable water management.
In Alberta, we celebrate the pristine rivers whose headwaters begin in the Rocky Mountains and travel through the Province; sustaining people, communities, industry, and the environment. We also celebrate the lakes that provide citizens with a place to reflect and recreate. With these water resources, we are able to enjoy our natural surroundings while benefiting from a high standard of living.
On this World Water Day, however, we pause to consider the future health of local, national, and global water resources. As populations continue to grow, demands for energy, food, and community development also increase. The Nexus Concept is becoming an increasingly used phrase for describing the interconnectedness and interdependency of our global resources; including water, food and energy. On World Water Day, it makes sense to think about how the Nexus Concept specifically relates to water, as the convergence of different water demands result in the need for planned sharing of finite local -- and ultimately global -- water resources.
Within the borders of our own province of Alberta, we can see that competing water demands have already begun to converge and overlap. Since the closure of the South Saskatchewan River Basin to new water licenses in 2006, several communities have started to push the limits of their water allocations and some businesses (such as the CrossIron Mills shopping outlet to the north of Calgary) almost failed to get off the ground due to a lack of water. With increasing demands for water to support growing communities, industrial activities, agricultural production and recreation, it becomes clear that the demands will inevitably converge in basins throughout the Province, resulting in less water to go around.
To address this convergence – or nexus -- of demands, a different way of thinking about water management will be required. Specifically, trade-off decision making would enable water managers at all levels to address the entire system of water uses, rather than looking at the individual parts in isolation. To add to the complexity, Albertans are increasingly concerned with issues like extreme weather, flooding and drought – symptoms of a changing climate. A systems way of thinking, based on the Nexus Concept, would enhance collaboration throughout Alberta’s basins and help to address the complex nature of how to ensure a sustainable water supply for people, food, energy, and the environment.
World Water Day provides citizens with the opportunity to not only celebrate the water we have and the life it supports, but also to step back and consider the changing issues facing our water resources and how the Nexus Concept can be applied when seeking solutions for those issues. In Alberta, we are fortunate that we are still in a position where we can study, discuss, and plan for addressing competing water demands in the face of a changing climate. While the future is uncertain and the challenges seem daunting, there is considerable work and thoughtful effort being put into water, which leads us to believe our glass is still half full.
For more information about the Nexus Concept, click here. We thank the following project funders for their generous support of this work
Practical implications of COP21
By Edwin Piñero
It’s easy to get lost in the lofty language of the recent COP21 climate agreement discussions and texts; but what does it mean for us practically? There’s justifiable frustration and skepticism that once again, this grand meeting will not produce substantive results. But the real variable of consequence is what happens after the COP21 meetings—what can and will actually be done to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
Even if money is available and monitoring, reporting, and verifications protocols are all worked out, nothing can be accomplished unless actual practices are put in place that result in lowered GHG emissions. I contend there are at least two game changers to realize these results.
One is making the business case for implementing practices and technologies that lead to lower emissions. Well-defined practices and applicable technologies still need a compelling business case as government mandates will only go but so far. To truly catalyze action in all sectors, a strong business case is necessary to mobilize capital and prompt “voluntary” (rather than government forced) actions.
The other game changer is the distinction between mitigation and adaptation strategies. The Earth’s history tells us the climate changes as a natural process. While human-induced climate change may be a variable, it’s foolhardy to think that controlling GHG emissions to a specific level from society (fossil fuel use, industrial processes, and so on) will eliminate all risks.
Therefore, we need to think about mitigating GHG emissions, and we must also think about adaptation strategies to inevitable climate changes. In a way the business case and adaptation points are related, as being adaptable and mitigating risks is part of survival and, even with ambitious announcements by world leaders, no business can rest on their laurels when it comes to dealing with the future.
The need for a business case
A sticking point at COP21 about where to source funds to help some countries meet goals is a telltale sign, notwithstanding the moral and noble intent, that without a business case it’s a hard sell. Veolia supports a carbon tax, or some type of fee, for carbon emissions because we can provide a business driver for action, especially from the private sector. As with any raw material or waste stream, knowing the cost and financial value allows the business case to be made for optimal and sustainable actions. Industry and public sector entities, and nearly all citizens in one way or another, pay to buy materials and dispose of solid and waste water. Why not have to pay for carbon emissions as part of this system?
If the argument is that GHGs impact the environment, and therefore need to be at least managed and ideally reduced, then a cost of carbon would recognize the implications of these impacts, as well as provide a foundation for business cases.
Adaptation versus mitigation strategies
Much has been said about actions to reduce GHG emissions so resulting climate change is not as severe or frequent. But at the city, company, site, and organizational levels, actions are needed, not only to reduce emissions but to also ensure cities, companies etc. are protected from inevitable climate related impacts. Yes, the climate is changing, and regardless of where you stand on GHG reduction commitments you need to plan for change. For example, Veolia operates energy and water infrastructure. Floods, severe storms, droughts, and rising sea levels can all impact our infrastructure, so we need to plan for such weather events.
|"IMG_0315" by Town of High River is licenced under CC BY 2.0|
As an organization we see our role as implementing technologies and practices that help reduce GHG emissions in a sustainable manner. This means implementation in a way that makes sense in terms of the environment, our society and quality of life, and our economies. We also develop methodologies and tools that help assess the impacts and risks of climate change and monetize those risks. With this information, an organization, public or private, can more easily compare the cost of not doing anything versus taking action.
How are these business case and adaptation issues relevant to Alberta?
Firstly, Alberta’s economy depends on both the energy sector and agriculture. Ironically, these are two sectors closely tied to climate change: the energy sector because of the issue of fossil fuel contributions to GHG emissions reductions, and agriculture because of the impact from climate change and how that affects food security.
For agriculture it’s more complex than we may think. Yes, climate related impacts such as drought and flooding affect crops and livestock, and therefore food security. But agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use and it takes energy to manage water. So providing this significant water supply to agriculture, and to account for other water use demands, will take energy. We also know energy production and use emits GHGs. For changes in agriculture to adapt to climate changes, we need to also consider the corresponding energy footprint and what that means for GHG. For example, pumping irrigation water longer distances to account for drought, or needing to desalinate water, will mean more energy demand. Practices and technologies that can do this more efficiently, or with alternative methods that result in lower GHG, will be paramount. More drought risk adaptation, such as reused water for irrigation, will be a must.
|"Suncor Firebag" by jasonwoodhead23 is licenced under CC BY 2.0|
For the energy sector in Alberta, the ability to produce oil with a lower carbon footprint is necessary. The pending carbon caps and tax proposed for the province will help form the business case for more efficient production. It’s interesting that the greatest GHG impact of oil sands production comes from steam generation (done mainly using natural gas). More efficient steam generation and alternative energy sources will help the oil sands sector keep production as economical as possible. With low oil prices, any savings, such as not paying a high carbon tax, will go a long way. The oil sand sector has to also consider adaptation strategies. With receding glaciers and reduced river base flows, a steady water supply could be at risk. Adaptation strategies such as water reuse may be a key solution.
The reality is fossil fuels will remain a notable component of the energy mix, not only in Alberta, but also across Canada and the entire world for that matter. Strategies and practices that can sustainably produce these fossil fuels will continue to have a place going forward for some time.
So where are we now?
We’re in a similar place to where we were after previous COP meetings. Yes, agreements are important and national commitments are a necessity. However it all comes down to what will actually be done to mitigate GHG emissions, and how we adapt to inevitable climate change (and related impacts) that will occur even with lower GHG emissions from society.
While we have a single, global atmosphere, and while COP21 will attempt to achieve global scale commitments, in large the real results will be driven by national, city, company, and organizational level actions, supported by good business cases and adaptation strategies.
Edwin Piñero is Senior Vice President Sustainability and Public Affairs, Veolia North America.
Where water fits in COP21
By Kristy Dixon
Climate change and carbon emissions are top of mind due to the COP21 conference in Paris. It’s also a timely topic of discussion for many Canadians, and especially Albertans, given the provinces’ recently released Climate Change plan.
COP21 (known less colloquially as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference) is the 21st international conference on climate change. The conference boasts attendance of 190 countries, each of which are trying to reach collective agreement on limiting the impact of climate change. To the point, delegates are attempting to agree on ways to prevent the planet from warming more than two degrees by 2100.
Often when we see and hear about climate change its impacts are conveyed through water—time lapses showing receding glaciers, miserable images of drought, and footage of coastal communities under threat. While water is a universal resource that all people can use to relate to the impacts of climate variability and warming, it remains secondary to energy in climate talks, and is often approached as a sub-section to an overall carbon focus.
|Bow Glacier in Banff National Park|
Most importantly, the integral relationship between climate and water means the commitments from COP21 will have impacts on how we manage water. For Albertans the commitments starting to flow out from COP21 might, at first, not seem directly relevant to our water management. However, the global focus presents opportunities to share, learn, and refine prevention and mitigation strategies, especially around extreme weather events including flood and drought, and the challenge of water scarcity.
Here are some key topics in COP21 and examples of how they relate to water:
Greenhouse gas emissions
It is no secret Canadians are some of the most wasteful people when it comes to how water is used. Furthermore, this is bad news for greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, before water reaches a home or business in Canada it must be extracted, treated, transported and, once it has been used it, must again be transported, treated, and released. Every one of these steps takes energy. To achieve this, municipalities typically spend between 25 and 60% of their budgets to supply energy for their city’s water infrastructure .
Local reuse could help to reduce water use; however, treating domestic and industrial wastewater also creates significant greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the treatment of used household water from cooking, washing, cleaning, and sanitation alone accounts for 3% of global electricity consumption and 5% of global non-carbon dioxide greenhouse-gas emissions (mainly methane). Methane’s comparative impact to carbon dioxide is more than 25 greater over a 100-year period, making it quite the nasty emission .
Solutions aren’t easy to come by, and require a mixture of prevention, mitigation, and conservation, to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions for water usage.
Some say an easier win would be reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced through the production, transportation, and waste created through bottled water, as estimates reveal producing bottled water requires as much as 2,000 times the energy cost of producing tap water . A little ironic considering popular bottled water brands like Dasani and Aquafina are essentially tap water treated for aesthetics.
With water scarcity (and therefore quality) linked to water treatment, and water treatment linked to energy, it will be interesting to see if COP21 addresses these relationships to water in the current or future climate talks.
Sustainable agriculture and forestry
At COP21, a panel is considering sustainable agriculture, forestry, and their use of water. These competing demands for the world’s most valuable resource are referred to as the Water Energy Food Nexus.
|"Irrigation 2144" by Marcia O'Connor is licenced under CC BY 2.0|
Agriculture is one of the sectors most seriously affected by climate variability but it also accounts for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change . It makes sense to break this futile loop, and water conservation and smart technologies for agricultural water use could be the biggest circuit breaker. When it comes to water, agriculture consumes 70% of freshwater used by humans, much of which is sourced from non-renewable aquifers . Improved monitoring and expanded regulation could improve this number.
The forestry industry has growing awareness of the need to consider watershed management as a tool for developing plantations that focus on forest productivity, as well as environmental and social benefits, mainly in terms of maintaining water supply and water quality to downstream users . The industry is also questioning local watershed impacts including erosion, flood, and fire implications.
Similar to greenhouse gas emissions, as soon as tradeoff conversations become more detailed, water becomes an implicit consideration. Take hydraulic fracturing for example: at an Alberta Water Conversation event in 2013 attendees largely agreed that fresh water should not be used for fracturing and that saline water would be a better choice. However, questions quickly arose on where saline water is located in relation to a well, and the transport implications of shipping saline water, or the energy required to create fresh water from a saline water source. This shows how quickly emissions tradeoffs and water become complicated.
Ultimately, decisions in climate impact water and decisions in water impact climate. To address these issues, communities and decision-makers are increasingly taking a holistic approach to these systems, not only trying to prevent global warming, but introducing ways for communities to adapt to the increasing climate variability that is forecast around the world, including in Alberta.
At COP21, the United Nations say it themselves, “Adaptation to climate change is closely linked to water and its role in sustainable development.”  Water may not be the headline from COP21, but it will be a clear indicator of how effective actions from the conference, and how effective subsequent regional or local initiatives will be, against the targets set.
Kristy Dixon is a Communications Specialist at Alberta WaterSMART.
 Pimentel, D., Berger, B., Filiberto, D., Newton, M., Wolfe, B., Karabinakis, E., Clark, S., Poon, E., Abbett, E., Nandagopal, S. (2004). Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues. Bioscience, 54, 909-918.; Rost, S., Gerten, D., Bondeau, A., Lucht, W., Rohwer, J., Schaphoff, S. (2008.) Agricultural green and blue water consumption and its influence on the global water system. Water Resources Research, 44, 1748-9326.