PUBLISHED: 22 September 2015      Last Edited: 22 September 2015

What is the law of Water Allocation in Alberta? Can it meet the Challenges of Water Management? By David Percy

The last five years have seen unprecedented interest in the state of Alberta water law, culminating in a public, province-wide Water Conversation conducted by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development in 2013.

Some of the conversations and many recent commentaries focused on two themes in particular. Both are vital, because they challenge fundamental principles of the Alberta Water Act

The first theme deals with the principle of prior allocation, often described as FITFR or First in Time, First in Right. The second critiques the methods by which Alberta permits water allocations to be transferred from existing licensees to new users. The severe drought experienced in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the summer of 2015 is bound to ensure that these issues remain in the public eye.


In 2012-2013, I conducted a legal and institutional analysis of Alberta’s water allocation system under a research grant from Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. This work resulted in two research papers that were provided to Alberta Environment in December 2013 under the titles:

  • The Principle of Prior Allocation and Water Management in Alberta
  • Transferring Water from Existing Uses

I am enthusiastic about communicating the issues discussed in the papers to both the public and water stakeholders. In order to present the key findings of two lengthy studies, I have summarized the major issues in a series of 10 Q&A Sheets. These Q&A Sheets address questions including:

  • What was the Early Legislation Meant to Do?
  • Did the Crown Fail to Protect the Public Interest in Granting Early Water Licences?
  • Do Water Licences Create Property Rights?
  • What Options Exist to Permit Water to be Transferred to New Users (in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Alberta)?
  • Do Water Transfers Result in Windfalls for Existing Licences?
  • Should there be a Form of Market Transfer in Alberta?

Download the 10 Q&A Sheets.

Your comments and feedback on these papers are welcomed and appreciated!

David Percy, Q.C. is the Borden Ladner Gervais Chair of Energy Law and Policy at the University of Alberta.