ACT Water report author Bob Sandford recently visited Edmonton and Calgary as part of his FLOW Cross-Canada tour, which has taken him to 16 cities in eight provinces. At each stop, he has heard stories about water of both hope and despair, while observing Canadian cities and provinces facing major challenges in water management exacerbated by climate change.

Bob’s innate optimism has been sustained throughout largely due to the Northwest Territories’ (NWT) example in development of their ground-breaking territorial water strategy, Northern Voices, Northern Waters. We have written about the NWT strategy several times on this blog and hope that its key messages are beginning to resonate, not least for the inspiration demonstrated by its people, but for its lessons for other provinces wishing to achieve water policy reform.

Bob’s experience in Edmonton revealed that jurisdictional fragmentation and institutional opacity has made leadership on water almost non-existent in Alberta, which is proving costly both now and under future scenarios that consider water challenges.

Moreover, discussion of the loss of climate stationarity – the range of climate possibilities within which we have evolved our infrastructure and policies designed to govern water, now fast becoming obsolete due to climate change – is only now entering the water management discourse in the province.

The key result that emerged from the Edmonton tour stop discussions was the absolute importance of getting fundamentals right first – such as water metering or a fair water licence system – before moving onto higher order problems. Serial demands from sectoral interests currently occupy the policy agenda and dominate the attention of policymakers, which has made it difficult to develop a larger vision of how to improve water management and how the implementation of such reforms can make collective visions achievable.

It was recognized, however, that stronger vision need not only come from government, but can arise in other areas such as industry, as evidenced by the RBC Blue Water Project, in which a leading financial organization is helping to advance water policy reform in Canada country through philanthropic means.

Alberta, like other Canadian provinces, requires the formulation of a water ethic (see discussion of this concept in the ACT report) to assist in overcoming the many obstacles the province faces in water policy reform. Bob strongly believes that we must stop rationalizing inaction, and that driving progress through establishment of a mutually recognized water ethic could restore confidence and widen support among the industry, not-for-profit and government sectors. Leadership cannot exclusively emerge when we encounter problems, it must be a critical means we actively use to avert crises and plan for the future.

Tour responses were less positive in Calgary, where Bob encountered the general notion that there is no problem with water in Canada, and that crises would induce action as necessary. Discussion of the aforementioned loss of climate stationarity revealed a common distrust in climate science, and doubt as to whether climate change was actually legitimate and occurring. (The Columbia Basin’s District of Elkford encountered a similar challenge while implementing their adaptation plan, recently featured by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, but overcame it through consistent, clear communications with stakeholders. Read their story.)

Despite this, Bob reports that the need for water policy reform is gradually being recognized in Calgary. Moreover, such reform is becoming evident in smaller Alberta municipalities, Basin councils, and the Council of the Federation.

Bob explained how rising infrastructure costs and the exacerbating effects of climate change could be a potential lever for public understanding and political action on the need for reform. This was referred to as the “tipping point” which could mobilize action on climate change and help overcome the scepticism and confusion around it. The importance of addressing the rising costs of the water infrastructure problem is not unique to these cities, but is a concern in other parts of Canada including Ontario and Quebec.

In conclusion, historical attempts to improve water management in Alberta have tended to be overshadowed by issues such as economic growth and industrialization – both of which have problematic impacts for water. It is refreshing to see that the province has put together a water strategy, but effective implementation remains a key next step.

Bob’s conclusion is that there is hope that the new Premier and Environment Minister will be able to break this policy log jam and initiate the water policy reforms that are so urgently needed in Alberta now.

Robert W. Sandford, EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of United Nations “Water for Life” Decade, and author of ACT’s Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance reports, has been touring Canada speaking about water governance policy. Tim Shah, ACT PICS Water intern reports on Robert’s progress in this blog.