Groundwater sustainability: evolving groundwater policy and regulation for Alberta

Groundwater sustainability: evolving groundwater policy and regulation for Alberta

Groundwater sustainability: evolving groundwater policy and regulation for Alberta


Groundwater management in Alberta is governed by a wide variety of regulation and policy.  Sustainable groundwater management is challenged by isolated reviews of water yield, a lack of information (leading to uncertainty in decision making and risk assessment), and challenges in integrated planning and assessment across multiple jurisdictions.   Our report Groundwater Policy and Planning in Alberta: a path forward for sustainable groundwater management and protection seeks to advance groundwater regulation in Alberta.

Regulation and management of groundwater in Alberta is administered by various government departments.   This poses significant problems for holistic groundwater policy and regulation concerning groundwater quantity and quality. Long term sustainability and protection of groundwater supplies requires a more unified groundwater management system focused on groundwater assessment, planning and compliance responsiveness.

It must be recognized that the province of Alberta has committed significant resources to groundwater management, particularly in certain locations.   However, there is a need to formalize policy direction to ensure consistent and strategic application of resources on an ongoing basis.  The ELC recommends a groundwater policy framework guided by core management principles to guide all decisions related to groundwater use and protection.  These principles include:

  • Protection of the quality and quantity of groundwater resources;
  • Clear standards and processes;
  • Environmentally sustainable water management;
  • Continuous improvement; and
  • Application of precaution in administration of groundwater authorizations and policy.

These principles are focused on addressing knowledge gaps and modelling uncertainty (including climate variability, yield, and recharge), risks of significant and irreparable harm resulting from compromised quality or supply, and risks of degradation to natural systems.

These principles should guide the development and implementation of a groundwater policy framework based on:

  • Scalable, iterative groundwater assessments of yield and vulnerability,
  • Integrated planning for the protection of groundwater resources, other groundwater users, and groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDE); and
  • A clear compliance and enforcement program to ensure regulatory responsiveness where quality and quantity impacts arise.

The ELC’s specific recommendations for the evolution of groundwater policy and regulation are to:

1. Ensure water quantity testing and modelling is sufficient to address long term groundwater sustainability, climate uncertainty, and “ecohydrology”.

This includes:
i) Requiring more accurate modelling and yield testing (moving away from the Q20 test).
ii) Adopting regulatory tools to assess groundwater extraction impacts on ecohydrology or groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDEs).
iii)    Ensuring any renewals of groundwater diversion approvals/licenses are accompanied by appropriate modelling (consistent with the above two measures).
iv) Formalizing assessment and articulate uncertainty in relation to groundwater models and assessments (using relevant statistical methodologies).
v) Reviewing permanent water licences to assess licence terms and adjust yield calculations as needed.
vi) Where licence conditions appear to limit the feasibility of reassessment of yields, ecohydrology impacts and diversion rates, seeking voluntary compliance with revised diversion rates. Create a public registry where more appropriate diversion rates can be accessed.
vii)   Integrating yield and GDE data into planning and regulatory decisions across jurisdictions by way of water management plans and regional planning.
viii) Introducing a precautionary factor to authorized diversions where evidence dictates.
ix) Identifying high priority water recharge and yield areas based on groundwater sustainability criteria.

2. Ensure groundwater quality is maintained or improved.

This includes:
i) Ensuring risk and vulnerability mapping is scalable to inform decisions.
ii) Formalizing groundwater risk assessment and mapping in a regulatory approach.
iii) Formalizing groundwater risk management planning and responses through regulation (e.g., regional planning). This includes clear integration of groundwater risk assessments into authorization decisions by the province (under the Water Act, Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Agricultural Operations Practices Act and other legislation relevant to the Alberta Energy Regulator) and by municipal governments.
iv) Including both surface vulnerability and subsurface pathways in risk assessments.
v) Creating an integrated risk database and registry that are geographically based, with data collected from various risk analyses undertaken by government and activity proponents.

3. Ensure timely compliance.

This includes:
i) Setting out regulatory compliance and enforcement policy for groundwater impairment.
ii) Setting out authority to prescribe management responses to existing and new activities, regardless of risk level (i.e. ensure that source water protection planning is enforceable).

DOWNLOAD Groundwater Policy and Planning in Alberta: a path forward for sustainable groundwater management and protection here.



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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