Dr. Swann Debates on Motions Other than Government Motions: Downstream Water Security

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, December 12, 2016

Motions Other than Government Motions: Downstream Water Security

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Very pleased to rise in support of this motion. It’s an easy motion to support. It’s our lifeblood, after all. The eastern slopes provide all the water to Alberta and to the rest of the prairie provinces, in fact, and it’s the source of all life and productivity, whether it’s agricultural or industrial. So it’s very clear that this really should be a higher priority than it has been for decades.

Peter Lougheed back in the ’70s established an eastern slopes policy that actually restricted industrial and commercial activity on the eastern slopes. Somehow over time that has gradually fallen away, and we’re in a state now where the designated areas for protection have not only become – what would I say? – thwarted or incompletely implemented but certainly misunderstood and certainly violated by past governments since Peter Lougheed. All manner of development has gone on now on the eastern slopes that not only threatens the quality of our water and the cost of cleaning the water, in Calgary for example, but all urban areas downstream of the mountains have to spend more and more dollars to clean the water because of not only more depositions from erosion but also from industrial and agricultural, even recreational use up there. Certainly, logging has added to the erosion and the loss of capacity to control high levels of flow or, as the hon. Member for Banff-Cochrane mentioned, control the flow for drought circumstances as well.

Dr. Brad Stelfox is a neighbour and has been an adviser to me for a decade. He has visited most environment and agriculture ministers since I got into this Legislature and has presented his ALCES model, which is recognized around the world as a wonderful visual indication of cumulative impact over many decades of development and has helped us get a sense of just how the pace of our development is threatening not only our water supplies but our industrial activities and all manner of activities that we are associating with economic development. By failing to manage the eastern slopes, we are failing to manage our economy in a very fundamental way. It’s a reminder that the economy is a subset of the environment. It’s not the other way around. If we don’t preserve the environment, we do not have an economy, and certainly we do not have our health.

Three levels of importance to water: not only the quality, not only the quantity of water but the in-stream flow needs, the so-called adequate volume that has to be maintained in streams and rivers for life to be supported there. Fish life, plant life, animal life: all of these require a minimum in-stream flow, which is threatened every fall. With the glaciers being limited further and further as years go by, there is a real threat, especially in southern Alberta, which has been known as the desert part of Alberta in past generations. The area that early explorers felt was uninhabitable and potentially desert has been close to that, especially through the Depression. We cannot assume anything for our future, especially with the unpredictability of climate change and the extremes that we can expect in terms of rain and water loss.

Those are some of the key elements of this. It’s one thing, though, to pass a motion that is motherhood; it’s another thing to actually put in place clear limits to activities and zones of development and protection against development. I applaud the hon. member’s efforts to highlight this yet again. In my time, 12 years in the Legislature, this is probably the fourth or fifth time that it’s been highlighted. It needs now to move on to much more substantive protection measures: bills, I would argue, regulations.

Off-highway vehicles have been a big issue in the eastern slopes that continue to be a damaging factor, especially in southwestern Alberta. But I think that on up the eastern slopes it’s going to be a growing problem as we get – I think Alberta has the most off-highway vehicles per capita of anywhere in Canada if I’m not mistaken, perhaps not including the Northwest Territories. We are increasingly using off-highway vehicles for recreational use in the mountains, and it’s causing very substantial impacts.

I would welcome the chance to move this forward in the next phase to some very clear guidelines, beyond what the South Saskatchewan River basin plan has done. It has made some steps towards limiting development and identifying protection areas like the park and wildland that have been established in southwestern Alberta, but I think it’s clear that we have to do more in relation to better logging practices, designating trails for off-highway vehicles instead of letting people go wherever they want, wherever there’s a trail, and designating recreational use, which is a tremendous possibility for our future economic development. Recreational tourism and the film industry out in the mountains have to be long-term economic drivers for us, which will have that as a side benefit, the primary benefit being, of course, protection of quality and quantity of water for all of us and indeed for recreational activities such as fishing and so on.

If any area of the province is absolutely dependent on better eastern slopes management, it’s the south part of this province. We don’t have a lot of water here. Most of our water is in the north. Most of our population and demands are in the south. It’s very clear, from all the reports that this member has referred to and others, that we neglect this at our peril. There have been no new water licences issued since 2006. It’s 10 years ago that we realized we’d reached the limit of our water capacity. Surely that’s the writing on the wall that says: folks, we’ve gone too far too fast. Especially in southern Alberta, what has to be the primary focus of policies on the eastern slopes is water protection for the future.

With that, I’ll take my seat. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.