Southern Alberta's semi-arid climate means drought is common and there is a limited amount of water available. Demand for water is high so it must be managed carefully to ensure there is enough for all users, including cities and towns, irrigators and industry, and enough to keep the river environment healthy.

In Alberta we have a system that allows people, companies and towns to purchase a license to use water from our streams and lakes. The Ministry of Environment manages water licenses through the Water Act and allocates or refuses water to those that apply. This process is based on principles of priority allocation where those with highest priority are ensured of water before any others. In dry years, this could mean some license holders with lowest priority may not be able to use any water because there would only be enough for those with higher priority. However, there are provisions in the Water Act that allow sharing of water among all users and this has worked well during past droughts. Priority allocation aims to cause no harm to other users while protecting those who were first in line to apply for water. Since 1894, over 20 000 water licenses have been issued in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) - so those who applied in 1894 have first rights (senior license holders) and those who applied in 2010 have last rights (junior license holders).

The Water Management Plan for the South Saskatchewan River Basin was developed after extensive consultation and guides how the water in the Oldman watershed, as well as all the other sub-basins of the SSRB, is managed. The plan adopted recommendations made by the Oldman Basin Advisory Council to close the basin to new allocations and establish water conservation objectives that would set minimum river flows.

Because the Oldman watershed is closed to new surface water allocations, no new licenses will be issued. However, by increasing efficiency existing license holders are able to accommodate growth. The closing of surface water allocations also means there is now a greater interest in groundwater. Currently data on groundwater quality and quantity is very limited. 

Alberta also has an Apportionment Agreement with Saskatchewan that guarantees at least 50% of the total annual water from the South Saskatchewan Basin will flow into Saskatchewan.

SSRB Adaptation to Climate Variability Report

By Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions and WaterSMART Solutions Ltd.