Climate Change Adaptation and the Law: Adapting Alberta’s Infrastructure to Climate Change

Climate Change Adaptation and the Law: Adapting Alberta’s Infrastructure to Climate Change

Climate Change and the Law: A Primer for Alberta

Part One: An Introduction to Climate Change Adaptation in Alberta

Adapting Alberta’s Infrastructure to Climate Change


The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) recently published its report on Climate Change and the Law which consists of two parts: Part One – An Introduction to Climate Change Mitigation in Alberta and Part Two – An Introduction to Climate Change Adaptation in Alberta. Part One introduces readers to the idea of mitigation and how it can help Alberta meet its climate goals. Part Two provides a broad overview of the issues Alberta is likely to face due to climate change and the legal tools and measures that can assist with adapting to these issues. This blog post is part of a short series that highlights and features select excerpts from the report.


Climate Change and the Law: An Introduction to Adaptation in Alberta by Kyra Leuschen
Climate Change and the Law: An Introduction to Adaptation in Alberta by Kyra Leuschen

by Kyra Leuschen

March 2019

Published: April 3rd, 2019

Part One: An Introduction to Adaptation in Alberta


Previously, we discussed the concept of climate change adaptation, how it relates to mitigation, and why the law is a powerful tool for effecting adaptation. The majority of the report focusses on how various sectors within Alberta will likely be impacted by climate change, and how legal adaptive measures can be used to maintain resiliency in the face of these impacts. In this blog post, we consider the impact of climate change on Alberta’s infrastructure, including water, transportation and building infrastructure, and what steps these sectors can take to adapt to climate change.


Alberta’s water infrastructure is used to store, manage and deliver water. It includes dams and reservoirs, water and wastewater treatment plants, irrigation canals, sewage systems for draining storm water, and flood mitigation structures.

Risks and Opportunities

Going forward, Alberta faces risks to its water supply, quality, and storm water and/or wastewater infrastructure due to climate change.

Water supply is likely to be affected by seasonal shifts in river flows (e.g. earlier snowmelt and spring runoff), more extreme events (e.g. flooding, storms, droughts), changing ice conditions, and lower water levels in many parts of the province. There is also likely to be increased competition for water due to growing demand from population and industry.[1]

Meanwhile, water quality faces risks from flooding and erosion which can disrupt water bodies and introduce increased water turbidity and contamination into our water intake. Higher temperatures and more frequent wildfires can also result in taste or odour issues and cause increased water treatment costs.

Increased floods also threaten Alberta’s stormwater and wastewater infrastructure as they can damage physical infrastructure and disrupt water treatment chemicals stored on site. Where sewer and storm water systems are still combined there is an increased risk of water quality impacts as well.[2] Meanwhile, heavier rainfalls can increase pumping costs and move debris that can block culverts and catch basins. This, in turn, can result in localized flooding or erosion.[3]


Water quality, supply, and infrastructure are governed primarily by the Municipal Government Act, Water Act, and Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, their associated regulations, as well as various standards, guidelines and Codes of Practice. The Government of Alberta has also adopted a “Water for Life” sustainability strategy and action plan.[4] Adaptation measures to address the aforementioned issues would require various changes to this regulatory framework.

One measure could be to update Alberta’s water allocation system as set out in the Water Act.[5] Currently, water allocations are based on a First-in-Time, First-in-Right (FITFIR) system that gives priority to senior licensees over junior licensees, regardless of use, and can leave junior licensees with an uncertain water supply during times of drought. The Province should consider moving to a “share” based system instead, whereby each shareholder is allocated a percentage of the available water. This ensures that water insecurity can be shared proportionally among all water users. The system should also prioritize water shares based on use.

Other measures include the creation of water management plans for every major river basin in the province as well as the implementation of water conservation objectives that are informed by instream flow. To date, Alberta has only approved two water management plans (South Saskatchewan River Basin and Battle River Basin) and relies on the voluntary preparation of water conservation, efficiency and productivity plans by the seven major water using sectors in the province.[6]

Adapting Alberta’s water infrastructure can also be achieved through improved land-use planning and development. This could include better mapping of areas of risk, the separation of drainage systems from sanitary systems (i.e. downspout disconnection), and the use of low-impact development.[7] Low impact development seeks to better manage storm water at its source, and includes reducing impervious surfaces, incorporating green roofs, and utilizing open drainage such as swales.[8] Some of these adaptive measures may require changes to the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and/or the Municipal Government Act.


Alberta’s transportation infrastructure supports nearly every other industry in the province. Networks of road, rail, and air move approximately 40% of Alberta’s international exports to market (the remainder is moved by pipeline).[9] Alberta’s transportation network is made up of 228,600 km of road and 6,679 km of rail.[10] The Fort Chipewyan Winter Road also provides 450 km of road from December to March, linking Fort McMurray to Fort Smith in the North West Territories. In addition, Alberta has two international airports located in Calgary and Edmonton as well as 11 regional airports and 72 community airports.

Risks & Opportunities

Climate change is expected to affect all modes of transportation in Alberta with the greatest risk coming from increased extreme weather events. Events such as heavy rainfalls can lead to flooding, washouts, bridge scour, slope failures and even landslides, all of which can damage road and rail infrastructure.[11] Air transportation risks include increased frequency of delays or cancellations due to precipitation and fog, and runway damage due to standing water.[12]

Meanwhile, a greater frequency of freeze-thaw cycles can stress road surfaces and bridges, foul rail track ballast, and generate more rockslides, affecting rail operations in the mountains.[13] Drought can lead to severe cracking of roadways, while extreme heat can cause asphalt roadways to rut and bleed, [14] overheat cargo, and impact rail track integrity.[15] Wildfires can destroy wooden bridges and cause disruptions to road and rail transportation.[16] Finally, extreme cold can impact rail infrastructure by causing steel tracks and wheels to become brittle and break, and airbrakes to be prone to leaks and freezing. It can also impact aviation transportation by causing an increased need for de-icing (which is not always available in smaller communities) and ground or delay aircraft.[17]

Alberta’s winter roads face their own unique challenges. Warmer winters are expected to have a negative impact on winter-road construction and maintenance costs, as well as reduce the reliability and operating season length of winter roads. This can result in significant social and economic impacts for the northern communities served by these roads.[18]

In terms of opportunities, climate change may present the opportunity to diversify and improve some of Alberta’s transportation routes and types. Higher ambient temperature can also improve diesel fuel efficiencies.[19]


Alberta’s transportation infrastructure is regulated by, among others, the Traffic Safety Act, Highways Development and Protection Act, Railway (Alberta) Act, Regional Airports Authorities Act, and the federal Aeronautics Act.

Most climate change adaptation measures in this area focus on improving physical infrastructure. However, from a legal perspective, adaptation measures could also include amending the Traffic Safety Act’s licensing and insurance legislation to require more education on driving in inclement weather,[20] and amending the Highways Development and Protection Act to require climate adaptation assessments and plans for all major roadways in the Province. The Province may also wish to update or optimize the timing of seasonal weight road restrictions to avoid premature pavement deterioration.[21]


Government buildings, industrial buildings, office buildings and many others make up Alberta’s built structures. Relative to the rest of the country, the built structures in Alberta are fairly young.

Risks and Opportunities

Climate change poses wide-ranging issues for public and private buildings as, traditionally, designers of Canadian buildings made the assumption that historical climatic patterns would hold constant throughout a structure’s useful life. Now, however, it is expected that extreme weather events will exceed the design threshold of residential and commercial structures, and events such as increased wind speed, extreme rain, flooding, and overheating will all pose risks to existing built infrastructure.[22]

More gradual increases in temperature and precipitation also pose a risk, as they hasten the weathering processes that gradually deteriorate buildings.[23] The effects of climate change are likely to be further compounded by poor land planning that has allowed developers to build in areas that are already vulnerable to extreme weather.[24]

Nevertheless, climate change is likely to increase demand for new, stronger and more energy efficient buildings – either as new builds or through retrofitting. Opportunity also lies in reconstruction after extreme weather events such as flooding or forest fires. For instance, the rebuild in Fort McMurray after the devastating wildfires of 2016 was estimated to be worth $1.3 billion.[25]


One of the most effective adaptation measures for built structures is to update and strengthen building codes. Alberta’s built infrastructure is regulated by, among others, the Public Works Act and the Safety Codes Act, which empowers the Alberta Building Code (ABC). Currently, the ABC is based on the 2010 edition of the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC). Alberta has also adopted the 2011 National Energy Code of Canada (NECB).

Going forward, the ABC and related legislation should integrate climate resilience into building design guides and codes. This will require the incorporation of newer climate load and design values that are based on emerging and future weather trends, as well as new design technologies and techniques.[26] Alberta should also continue working to meet the goals of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. Among other measures, the Pan-Canadian Framework calls for improving the energy efficiency of new construction through the development and adoption of increasingly stringent model building codes, starting in 2020, with the goal of adopting a ‘net zero energy ready’ building code by 2030.[27] Governments are also working to develop a model code for upgrading existing buildings by 2022, for subsequent adoption.[28]

Other climate change adaptation measures include: subsidy programs or regulations that promote retrofits aimed at improving the resiliency of existing homes to extreme weather;[29] financial instruments such as warranties that provide financial incentives for builders to ensure their work is protected against climate risks; and insurance contracts that offer discounts for homes that comply with resilient building practices.

Alberta should also take steps to improve its land use planning, which is generally regulated by legislation such as the MGA and/or ALSA. Municipalities should take additional steps to ensure the construction of residential and commercial buildings is limited to areas protected from current and future weather hazards. Policy makers should produce climate models, conduct floodplain modelling, and consider other hazard mitigation studies to inform decision making.[30]


Going forward, extreme weather events, wildfires, and the persistent and pervasive warming temperatures that are associated with climate change will all pose challenges to Alberta’s existing built infrastructure. Adaptation (in its many forms) will be key to maintain their resiliency in the face of climate change. For more information on this topic continue reading Part Two – Introduction to Adaptation in Alberta. Alternatively, for information on how mitigation can help to reduce the impacts of climate change altogether check out the first volume of the ELC’s Climate Change and the Law report, Part One – Introduction to Mitigation in Alberta.


[1] J. Andrey, P. Kertlend & F.J. Warren, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure in Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation, edited by F.J. Warren & D.S. Lemmen, Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON, 233-252 at 239 online: [Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure].

[2] For example, the City of Edmonton’s remaining combined sewers continues to emit sewage during storm events. Data regarding effluent in combined sewers within the City of Edmonton can be viewed online .

[3] Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure at 242.

[4] For more information see AEP, Water for Life, online: .

[5] For a full suite of approaches to managing climate risks see Arlene Kwasniak “Climate Change and Water: Law and Policy Options for Alberta” Canadian Institute of Resources Law Occasional Paper #57, March 2017, online: .

[6] Alberta Water Council, “Water Conservation, Efficiency and Productivity”, online: .

[7] See Kwasniak 2017 and Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure at 242.

[8] See for example Credit Valley Conservation et al., Low Impact Development Stormwater Management Planning and Design Guide, Version 1.0, (2010) at 3-1-3-2 online:

[9]Generally speaking, the Prairies have a relatively high number of road-km per capita due to its large municipal and provincial road network, and low population density. PROLOG Canada Inc. for Alberta Economic Development Authority, The Transportation Sector in Alberta: Present Position and Future Outlook – An Update, April 30, 2005, at 3 online: .

[10] A. Phillips & W. Towns, 2017: The Prairies in Climate risks and adaptation practices for the Canadian transportation sector 2016, edited by K. Palko & D.S. Lemmen, Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON, 105-137 at 110, 112 [Phillips, 2017: The Prairies].

[11] Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure at 245; Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 117.

[12] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 131.

[13] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 117, 125, 128.

[14] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 117.

[15] Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure at 245.

[16] Andrey, 2014: Water and Transportation Infrastructure at 245; Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 118.

[17] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 131.

[18] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 122

[19] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 118.

[20] ICF Marbek at 24.

[21] Phillips, 2017: The Prairies at 118.

[22] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 149.

[23] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 150.

[24] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 150.

[25]W. Snowden, “Fort McMurray wildfire costs to reach almost $9B, new report says”, CBC News, January 17, 2017 online:

[26] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 150.

[27] Government of Canada, Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change: Canada’s Plan to Address Climate Change and Grow the Economy, 2016 at 17 online: [Pan-Canadian Framework].

[28] Pan-Canadian Framework at 17.

[29] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 151.

[30] Kovacs, 2014: Industry at 151.



The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.

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  • Alan
    Posted at 18:33h, 17 April Reply

    There is no indication that the ELC supports our cities being healthy places in which to live. The main sources of urban air pollution are cars, trucks and worst of all residential wood burning. It is troubling to have to look to the U.S. for clean air initiatives but at least some states have emission testing for cars and various measures to protect residents from their neighbours’ wood smoke including a total ban (New York )

    The focus on reducing Greenhouse emissions has resulted in the concept of a healthy environment being sidelined.

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