Short and long term solutions for Alberta’s water crisis

Despite recent snowfall in parts of the province, Alberta remains at risk of facing drought this spring and summer. The province operates under a water licencing system that complicates water allocation in times of scarcity.

Water licenses allow licence holders to use ground or surface water. The first in time first in right system means older licenses have first dibs. The holder may be a business, an individual or a municipality. In Alberta, 75 per cent of water licences are held by irrigators.

According to the Alberta Water Portal, Alberta’s 12 irrigation districts contribute $5.4 billion to the provincial GDP annually and support 46,000 jobs.

That is to say that irrigation makes significant contributions in Alberta and irrigators are key to water sharing negotiations in the province.

Lorraine Nicol, Senior Research Associate in the Economics Department at the University of Lethbridge studied Alberta’s last significant drought in 2001. 

In the Alberta Land Institute (ALI)’s latest podcast episode, Nicol notes that the willingness of water licence holders to voluntarily negotiate water sharing was key to managing the 2001 drought.

Based on her research and first hand experience working with Alberta’s irrigators, Nicol is confident that irrigators will demonstrate the same willingness to share water again.

Nicol says the irrigation districts “have always been team players” and says that “they know what they have, it is very, very valuable and they're willing to share it one way or another. And I am sure that they are at the table in good faith in doing this.”

While cooperation from irrigators is voluntary, providing for human needs will always be first priority.

“The irrigation districts did sign a declaration indicating that during a drought period water would be first provided for basic human needs as well as livestock needs before any water would be provided for the purposes of crop growth.” Nicol says.

The Alberta Government recently concluded water sharing negotiations with water licence holders and Nicol’s prediction that irrigators would step up has proven to be correct.

Participating municipalities, industry and irrigators have voluntarily agreed to reduce water usage if necessary.

These water negotiations were the first major water negotiations since the 2001 drought. The government’s goal is to prevent the province from entering an emergency situation.

Part of the government's plan also relies on the participation of the average Albertan and, based on Calgarians response to the August to October water restrictions last year, Albertans are willing to do their part. 

During the 2023 water restrictions, Calgarians conserved 1.5 billion liters of water. Currently, Calgary is under a water use advisory and according to Calgary's manager of natural environment and adaptation, Nicole Newton, Calgarians have been responsive.

All of that to say that, thanks to the collective efforts of Albertans, the 2024 drought should be manageable.

However, it is likely that water shortages will persist past 2024. Warm, dry weather resulting from climate change combined with record breaking population growth means Alberta is in need of long term water management strategies.

“We have to have some mechanisms in place that are more permanent and I think that this may be what we call a critical juncture,” says Nicol. “It might be a crisis, but don't let a good crisis go to waste.”

As part of a team lead by Sven Anders, Nicol and other researchers have been granted funding from ALI to work with Alberta’s irrigators to find long term solutions.

The study will explore implementing new mechanisms or building on existing mechanisms to improve water sharing within the existing water licencing system.

“I don't want anyone to get nervous about us looking at the licencing system and suggesting that the licencing system should in any way go, that it should be eliminated or that there should be major changes to it,” says Nicol.

For the time being, there are other potential long term solutions that are being discussed by the Government of Alberta. These include inter basin transfers or a pipeline that transfers water from northern Alberta to southern Alberta, although the pipeline is a contentious concept.

Some research suggests that wetlands could play a role in water management and in fact were used for exactly that by ancient civilizations

An article published by the Environmental Law Centre in February discusses wetlands in Alberta, the water act and drought management.


For more information, check out these resources and make sure to check our website for updates about ongoing research projects.

Priority? Licence transfers? Here's how Alberta's water system works


The Land Use Podcast: Water Licencing and Drought In Alberta with Lorraine Nicol


Modeling Sustainable Land and Water Policy in Alberta’s Irrigation Sector


Alberta’s Living Laboratory Wetland’s Project


Government of Alberta Water legislation and guidelines