Environmentalists short-circuiting water conservation debate

Joseph Quesnel / Troy Media
Calgary Beacon
March 31, 2011

While water scarcity and environmental conservation are pressing matters, that is no reason for one side to dominate the debate about the future of our water supply.

Take Alberta, for example.

While all of the south-western Canadian prairie region is semi-arid and prone to frequent and severe droughts, and areas around Regina and east of Calgary are quite dry and precipitation quickly dissipates, water scarcity in Alberta is of particular concern, especially in the south.

Turning feat into hysteria

The reality, of course, is that most of the province’s water is in the north, while demand is highest in the south, a semi-arid region that supports 60 per cent of Canada’s irrigation but has only two per cent of its fresh water supply. But that is no reason why easily-aroused fears should turn into hysteria.

Historically, Alberta has relied upon a “first-in-time, first-in-right” system of water allotment, by which senior licence holders receive full entitlement before junior licensees receive a share.

In 2006, the province, fearing over-allocation, closed off southern Alberta river basis to new licences, which reduced the water market and forced growing municipalities to make arrangements with irrigators and senior licensees for water allocations. In response, Alberta created a system of tradable permits.

It has now been recognized, however, that the licence-transfer system itself needs reform.

A few years ago, the Alberta government took on a daunting challenge when it announced that it was open to the introduction of a full-fledged water market. It has been gathering public input ever since.

Environmentalist organizations with anti-market biases (regardless of proven outcomes) have monopolized the debate. Although airing environmental concerns are important, it is not helpful when the debate is riddled with inaccuracies and alarmism.

In the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge, for example, Kevin Force, a spokesman for the Sierra Club and Public Interest Alberta, was invited in January by the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SACPA), a weekly forum to discuss topical issues, to speak at their weekly meeting. Force argued that the government’s proposed water market system would inevitably become dominated by wealthy private interests and would run counter to water conservation goals. And last year, and again at SACPA’s invitation, water campaigner Sheila Muxlow argued against water markets for Alberta.

Both speakers are political activists; they are not water conservation experts or water management economists. They have degrees in political science and globalization studies. Their passion and research does not make up for the absence of proper credentials.

Dave McGee, a Lethbridge-based water policy expert with Alberta Environment, who attended Force’s forum, described it as riddled with inaccuracies and said so at a public forum.

Environmentalist organizations are always claiming that the commercial use of water should always be placed at the bottom of the list of uses. But this naïve line of argument ignores the fact that the commercial uses of water and ‘human consumption’ are intertwined: businesses denied water results in the deprivation and the unemployment of humans.

There is plenty of credible evidence that the goals of human water consumption and environmental conservation are not incompatible. In fact, Henning Bjornlund, Research Chair in Water Policy and Management at the University of Lethbridge, wrote an excellent policy commentary for the C.D. Howe Institute [The Competition for Water] defending water markets for southern Alberta and demonstrating how they can meet both conservation and consumption goals.

But only listening to environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, we are ignoring potential solutions offered by examples from Australia and the Western United States, where water markets have helped address water shortage.

We would also miss the pioneering work of Environment Probe’s Elizabeth Brubaker, who argues that water markets should come with water pricing reform.

Markets enhance conservation

Or how about Lorraine Nicol, a research associate in economics at the University of Lethbridge? In 2005, she completed her master’s thesis on Irrigation Water Markets in Southern Alberta, in which she found that “Markets permit water to move to higher-value uses, thus increasing the resource’s productivity and enhancing economic growth. Conservation efforts can also be enhanced, since users, able to sell any excess water, are provided an incentive to conserve. For unprofitable producers, selling their water rights provides needed cash and may help to facilitate an exit from the industry.”

Water issues are a vital topic for discussion in the semi-arid Prairies. We may be depriving ourselves of key solutions if one side is allowed to stifle debate.

Joseph Quesnel is a Lethbridge-based policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy where he writes mainly about Aboriginal and property rights issues.

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