The rivers be dammed, or is that damned?

The rivers be dammed, or is that damned?

The rivers be dammed, or is that damned?


By Jason Unger
Staff Counsel, Environmental Law Centre

If we are serious about aquatic ecosystem health in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) we have to really start talking about two things; irrigation and growth.  The South Saskatchewan River Basin in Alberta Water Supply Study (the Supply Study) outlines various scenarios of growth in the irrigation sector while acknowledging that “environmental flows” will continue to be undermined.    The “environmental flows” are embodied by the “water conservation objective” or WCO set for the SSRB at 45% of the mean flow (or 10% above preexisting instream objectives, whichever is greater) and reflect a negotiated rather than a scientifically based amount for the protection of the aquatic environment.

The Supply Study outlines that, in the all scenarios modeled, the WCO will be undermined in most reaches of the SSRB (See at Table 5- A1 and 5-B1 of the consultant’s main report . Table 5-A1 from the report is reproduced below.).

The Study also indicates that building more on-stream storage, i.e., dams, and flow regulation will assist in reducing deficits to WCOs and junior licence holders (see page 19 of the Summary report ).

What the Supply Study does very well is bring into relief vastly different visions for managing the SSRB.  One vision of continued alteration of the landscape, i.e., engineering water supply solutions, vs. a vision of altering behaviours and our concepts of growth to limit our demand on natural systems.

So where is the “Demand Study”?

Supply side management, an approach to water management that has been with us for generations, is a system that facilitated western settlement and has fostered an irrigation based rural economy.  It has also resulted in a significant shift in ecosystems.


The Supply Study calls for mitigating impacts through altered operations and proposes more on-stream dams to provide for irrigation growth.

A report focused on demand side management would be a welcome counterpoint to the Supply Study as demand management attempts to foster behaviours to live within natural supply limitations, seeking to live within the bounds of our environmental resources.

This choice between supply and demand in how we manage water allocations must be front and centre for any water allocation review undertaken by government.   Should we continue to dam (or damn) rivers and expand irrigation or should we cap irrigation and shift to behaviours that respect environmental constraints (however inadequate they might be)?






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  • Dale Christian
    Posted at 10:19h, 08 September Reply

    Hi Jason,
    i’ve taken the liberty to forward this page to the RDRWA BoD.
    While I agree with your comments re- water allocation and these constructed off stream reservoirs – what I see happening is big aggregate industries pushing for the constructed reservoirs – then they ( aggregate) can certainly justify their natural reservoir takings and the added flood exacerbation as well as the damage to healthy aquatic eco-systems. GoA will buy in because well… they aren’t very forward looking- it looks good to watershort areas( municipalities) in the short term anyway.
    What you have then tho, is a river system devoid of the groundwater/surface water connections, the flood banks natural living areas for millions of the micro-organisms that supply the aquatic eco-system food chain and capture the nasty stuff before it enters the water.
    These off stream reservoirs and aggregate ponds warm the water, are too deep for duck, geese prefered habitat( which might be anther GoA PR selling point) and provide condiuts and collection areas for chemical,hydrocarbons, metals, and pathogen contaminants. These pools lose so much water to evaporation that the contaminates become more and more concentrated over time resulting in salts contamination too.
    The tenants of WPAC’s are to love within the means of their own watershed- constructed off stream reservoirs are not the answer.
    No one seems to consider that upkeep and maintenence costs are HUGE and therefore the water from these “reservoirs” – has a huge taxpayer cost attached.
    How’s that for a rant. Thanks for writing the article


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