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Jason Unger, Environmental Law Centre

Alberta needs to be proactive in planning, managing water for environmental outcomes: think tank

Monday, July 04, 2022 @ 10:48 AM | By Ian Burns

A legal think tank in Alberta is calling on the province to rethink its approach to water governance.

The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) said in a recent report that Alberta needs to ensure its water resources are managed or restored to levels where resource use is sustainable, where aquatic species diversity and abundance is maintained, and aquatic ecosystems are resilient to climate variability. The ELC said this can be done by focusing on four key law and policy pillars — legal protection of environmental flows; integration of land and water management; conservation of aquatic habitat and adaptable water management that is responsive to water supply issues; and evolving climate pressures.

Jason Unger, the ELC’s executive director, said the 2000s saw a move away from planning for water resources to the notion of voluntary approaches to water use, but given future risks to aquatic ecosystems, and the ability to deal with them, there is a need to focus on statutory-based planning.

Jason Unger, Environmental Law Centre

Jason Unger, Environmental Law Centre

“That would embrace the notion of having a strategy for policy that would guide the development of increased focus on healthy aquatic ecosystems and the identification of water conservation objectives,” he said at a June 23 webinar outlining the report. “If we look to the future and what science and modelling provides us, we look to see that there is a level of uncertainty and a level of scarcity in a variety of basins in Alberta.”

The legislation in Alberta which has the most direct implications for water planning and management in the province is the Water Act and the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. The ELC said the province needs to become more proactive in planning and managing water for environmental outcomes, and it is thus recommending policymakers bring in habitat protection legislation for aquatic and terrestrial species and ecosystems, which would include provisions to ensure conservation and restoration of biophysical aspects of aquatic systems. The report also says there should be an independent authority to direct planning around water outcomes, which would then drive decision-making at provincial and municipal levels, as well as a provincial dialogue regarding water management and allocation in the context of climate change.

Unger said adopting and implementing recommendations would require a “shift in mindset” by authority figures.

“Embracing planning means you have to embrace decisions based on those plans and embracing the science that is backing those plans and the challenging decisions that have to be made,” he said. “It would mean there would be more substantive analysis, a more substantive look at models and impacts from land use and climate change, and so we need to be ready to embrace the planning process.”

More information about the ELC can be found here.

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