The Bog

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.

Please pass the E. coli O157:H7

Canada is currently experiencing one of the heaviest spring run-offs in decades. Much of this water is coming from adjacent fields and agricultural operations. You may be surprised to know that this water may contain more than your typical unwanted nitrates and minerals.
For example, a disturbing trend has developed across Canada whereby unwanted biological pathogens are steadily entering our waterways. One such pathogen is Escherichia coli, which we commonly know as E. coli.

E. coli is the most common of the intestinal flora found in domesticated animals and is “shed” by those animals daily. In the United States 40% of waterways have been deemed contaminated with E. coli. A problem that is becoming more problematic as much of that water is used to irrigate food crops, for recreation, or for drinking water. Consider further that a much more pathnogenic strain of E.Coli known as Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (more commonly known as E. coli O157:H7), has steadily grown in prevalence within these animals and within our waterways. E. coli O157:H7 was detected as early as 2000 in Alberta watersheds and was later linked to increasing domesticated animal density in Southern Alberta in 2003.

Unlike common E. coli, E. coli O157:H7 is often deadly requiring as few as 10 cells to make you seriously ill. There is no available human vaccine to protect against this bacteria and the use of antibiotics may worsen disease symptoms. A very serious complication arising from the disease is hemolytic uremic syndrome which can lead to kidney failure. Particularly vulnerable groups include children, the elderly and immuno compromised individuals.

Canada: Speaking For The Public: Who Pays?

Who should pay the costs, when a public interest intervenor succeeds before an administrative tribunal?

The Alberta Environmental Appeals Board awarded an intervenor $76,067, payable by the Town of Turner Valley. Ms. Walsh, who lives on a disability pension, had persuaded Alberta Environment and the Board to require additional monitoring of a municipal drinking water reservoir, over the opposition of the municipality. Her work "resulted in a better Amending Approval, one that will ensure the protection of the water supply for all of the Town's citizens."

Both parties to Walsh v. Director were likely disappointed with the result. Ms. Walsh had sought costs of $368,207 against the Town; the Town sought a costs award of $304,517 against Ms. Walsh. The Town got nothing, because its costs were properly related to its own application for a approval. The doubts raised by Ms. Walsh were justified, since the Town had chosen to put its reservoir in an area formerly used for oil and gas.

First in Time, First in Right - Is it Being Attacked?

For the last 116 years, Alberta’s water allocation system has been based on the principle of first in time, first in right. This means that the first person to obtain a licence for the use of an allocation of water has priority to water in dry times over someone who obtained a licence at a later date. This priority principle goes as far back as Roman and feudal law.

The first in time, first in right system of water allocation was established in Alberta by the North-West Irrigation Act (1894) and continues today in the Alberta Water Act.

Recently, the Town of Okotoks applied to transfer water allocations under existing water licences to provide for future municipal growth. The transfer of a water allocation from an existing licence holder to another person is permitted by the Water Act. But the fly in the ointment – the Town of Okotoks seeks not only a transfer of the existing water allocation, but asks that the water licence be amended so it can divert and use up to 3 times more than the existing licence allows. It seeks what has been coined as a “net diversion licence”. This fictional type of water licence would allow for a diversion of water in excess of the total volume allowed under an existing water licence so long as the excess volume of water is returned at some point. I use the word “fictional” as this type of water licence is not contemplated by the Water Act.

Reality Check: Water and the Oil Sands

Lately it seems the oil sands are being blamed for all of Canada’s environmental ills. By reading articles in your daily newspaper or perusing the website of your favourite environmental group, it would seem that oil sands developments are to blame for all of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions and sucking up all of Alberta’s water. Case in point, the recent Rethink Alberta campaign lists many “facts” on the environmental impacts of the oil sands, many of which are based on misinformation and half-truths.

It’s time for a reality check, and to get the truth out on water and the oil sands. The most common misconception on the issue is that the oil sands industry is the primary user of water in Alberta. In fact, agriculture uses a far greater percentage of our water. In 2007, agriculture in Alberta was allocated 4.1 billion cubic metres of water. Current allocations for the oil sands are in the range of 7 cubic metres per second (about 221 million cubic metres total), which is about 5 per cent of agricultural allocations. Even if all existing, approved and announced oil sands projects proceed, the oil sands industry would only use 2 per cent of the Athabasca river flow – today, the industry uses about 1 per cent of the river’s flow.

Water and Okotoks

A November 30, 2009, Calgary Herald article captioned “Calgary utility would sell water to neighbours” appeared to be almost accepting of a City of Calgary proposal for a ‘not-for-profit’ water utility. This will not go over well with those who continue to protest the prospect of City of Calgary control over potentially divergent growth philosophies in municipalities that populate the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP).

Okotoks, a community known for its global growth planning leadership, is specifically referenced in the article – as in “Okotoks would have access to Calgary’s water supply on a cost-recovery basis ... but only if onside with long-term development plans”. The November 30 article shows a disregard for the majority of Okotoks’ residents who for years have opted for a finite growth strategy premised upon the carrying capacity of their Sheep River aquifer.

The gnawing concern for many is that The City of Calgary may well intend superimposing its will with respect to neighbouring communities’ growth plans as a consequence of enabling Provincial land-use legislation and with the City handed an excess water licensed capacity hammer. Elected politicians with an ear to their development lobbies will promote urban water efficiencies associated with urban development. Water drawn for household consumption will be seen to be returned to water courses as treated effluent. Paved roads will be seen to channel precipitation otherwise absorbed by a porous landscape directly to associated river aquifers. A more thoughtful examination will show that with expanding populations, associated industrial, commercial, agricultural and recreational sector requirements will lead to disproportionate increases in the aggregate demand for water.