Dr. Swann Debates Bill 20 – Beaver River Basin Water Authorization Act (Second Reading) – 31 October 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, October 31, 2017.

Bill 20 – Beaver River Basin Water Authorization Act (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to rise and speak to Bill 20, on the face of it a logical and sensible and, obviously, critical thing to do for health and for sustainability of communities, including a First Nations community. I want to add my caution, though, to that of the mover of this bill. The reason these bills come to the Legislature is because it’s a big decision. Transferring water from one basin to another has costs, and it has benefits.

I don’t think we in the Legislature necessarily appreciate the costs of continuing to transfer water from one basin to another. We’ve had five in the past. I was part of those decisions. They were in southern Alberta and related to some groundwater quality issues and quantity issues.

I think it behooves us to think about why we are continuing to have to provide interbasin transfers, which have some ecological risks. Those are contamination of certain species going into another ecosystem and potentially becoming invasive species, overriding certain species of fish, dominating the fish mix, and certain potential toxins, obviously, whether plant toxins or industrial toxins.

So there’s that dimension, and there’s the other dimension, which has to do with whether we’re conserving appropriately the water that we’re currently using in a particular basin.

The third aspect is: do we understand what’s happening to our groundwater? Why is the groundwater declining in that area? What are the factors that are contributing to its decline? Is it population demand, agricultural demand? Is it industrial demand? Is it a failure to conserve in places where we could be conserving?

Are we seeing the kinds of issues related to the Rosebud area, where fracking and coal-bed methane actually contaminated quite a significant number of people’s groundwater wells and therefore required trucked-in water and eventual new sources of water for these folks? What do we know about our groundwater? What do we know about what’s happening, especially in the new shale gas developments? We seem to have learned nothing from the 2006 fiasco in Rosebud, where after all this volume and this gas was coming up in people’s water wells, we suddenly realized that we didn’t know what the baseline gas was in those wells because we hadn’t been doing baseline groundwater monitoring.

We did 12,000 samples in that area, and 10 years later we don’t have meaningful results from those groundwater tests because the sampling techniques were different, the laboratories were different, the standards were different, and we can draw almost no conclusions from that whole Rosebud fiasco. Are we doing baseline groundwater monitoring now in relation to the shale gas developments? No. We’re leaving it up to the industry to decide whether groundwater is being protected or not, and only on complaints do we actually get in there and sample the water.

So I have serious concerns about our groundwater. I’m not saying that this particular transfer is wrong. I’m saying that we haven’t yet taken seriously the growing threat to both surface and groundwater in terms of our demands: agricultural, industrial, residential, municipal. We haven’t taken seriously the fact that, especially in the southern and eastern parts of this province, we’re headed for real trouble with climate change. We don’t know what we should know about our groundwater, we don’t know what the industrial impacts are, and I don’t think any of us believe that we’re conserving our water and using it to the best available opportunities.

Again, a note of caution that these issues come to the Legislature because we have the final say, and I don’t know how much information we have to make these decisions. We continue to pass them. This will be the sixth interbasin transfer. I don’t know if we’re asking the right questions of our ministry, and that includes the Energy ministry because the industrial activity in this province is second to none under the surface. Over 450,000 wells puncture through our water tables, and we don’t know what we need to know.

I met with a groundwater expert last week at the University of Calgary. He’s still trying to sift through and get some semblance of conclusions, some reliable conclusions from those 12,000 samplings that were done in 2006 and ’07 in the Rosebud area. He’s having a great deal of difficulty because of the problems I mentioned.

We don’t know the volumes of water available in our groundwater, which is the ultimate source of our surface water. We need to start asking some hard questions of our Energy and Environment ministries and ensure that we know what we’re leaving for the next seven generations.

I will be supporting this transfer but with great concern that we don’t know what we need to know to make these decisions. Thank you, Madam Speaker.