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20th February 2024
...continued from Part One

Only two things have changed in Alberta since the paper was published. Climate change has intensified. And those in charge are even more heedless in the demands they are willing to place on the region’s ever more scarce water.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan, for example, have grand plans to expand irrigation during a drought.

The oilsands’ demands keep growing as well. In 2020, just four companies in the oilsands took 200 billion litres of fresh water from the Athabasca River to lubricate eight water-intensive bitumen projects. That’s more than what the city of Calgary withdraws from the Bow and Elbow rivers to slake its needs for a year.

The Tyee asked Bill Donahue about the famous paper and all it warned and prescribed. The independent water scientist and Alberta Environment’s former chief monitoring officer was blunt.

“We’re now 18 years after our PNAS paper made waves and Alberta's in a worse position,” said the scientist, who now lives in British Columbia. “The irrigated acreage has expanded substantially, water-intensive oil and gas production has skyrocketed, mainly in the form of natural gas fracking and mined and in situ bitumen extraction, and climate change has continued to advance.

“Today's Alberta government is completely incapable of managing something like climate change, drought and widespread water shortage because they only see environmental problems as political and ideological problems, as opposed to actual problems with potentially catastrophic real-world consequences.”

Equally stark was his assessment of leadership in Alberta Environment and the Alberta Energy Regulator and other arms of government key to dealing with the water crisis in the province. They “lack the attention span and skills to properly respond to it.”

“Dave and I tried to warn Albertans about what was coming, and unfortunately we were largely ignored,” said Donahue.

“In every presentation I've ever given on climate change and its effects on water supply in Alberta, I've always talked about the possibility that a 20- or 30- or 40-year drought could start this year, based on what the norm was for every century in the last two millennia, other than the exceptionally stable and wet 20th century.”

Brad Stelfox, an Alberta-born, highly respected land-use ecologist, says Albertans need to think about the crisis in terms of supply and demand. If there’s no demand for water, then having very little of it constitutes not a drought but simply low flow.

“Unfortunately Alberta has made lots of water allocation decisions on the poor assumption that abundant rainfall and melt water will persist forever.” When Alberta became a province in 1905, it had 160,000 people who each consumed about 50 litres of water per day, related Stelfox. Now more than 4.7 million Albertans each use eight times that amount on average.

Robert Sandford, a water expert and resident of Canmore, says Alberta won’t be alone in facing a water reckoning. He told The Tyee: “Fire and water are different sides of the same coin but, as we have been witnessing, too much of either can create catastrophe.”

No government was ready for the Canadian wildfires of 2023, and none are prepared for the drought Alberta now faces.

“We need to hope less and do more,” exhorted Sandford, who holds the Global Water Futures Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

“We now exist in a climate regime that humanity has never experienced before.” Responding with “anything less than a well-organized, aggressive and nationally coherent response could ultimately be fatal to thousands.”

“If we want to end this perfect storm — and this climate emergency — we have to wake up and act as though our lives and our futures depend upon immediate action. Because they do.” [Tyee]