As the heat bubble scorched British Columbia this summer, the record setting temperatures extended far south into the United States where the Hoover Dam reservoir hit its lowest recorded depth since construction was completed in 1936. As the Hoover Dam forewarned, it would not take long for the heat problem to become a water problem.
By August, Alberta and Saskatchewan were experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions and ranchers were selling their livestock early to avoid losses.
Statistics Canada announced that crop yields across the Prairies were down significantly. By the end of November, the Canadian Drought Monitor was indicating persistently dry conditions with large areas of extreme drought and ominous patches of exceptional drought.
In southern Alberta, our watersheds are particularly vulnerable and facing multiple threats. Global warming is accelerating glacier melt and reducing winter snowpack, which provides up to 90 percent of the annual stream flow.
The Alberta WaterPortal Society states Alberta’s glaciers lost more than 20 percent of their area from 1985 to 2005. In a 2006 University of Lethbridge study, “Current and future water issues in the Oldman River Basin of Alberta, Canada,” the authors present data showing annual stream flow trending downward for more than 70 years.
Milder winters and increasing rainfall reduce the snowpack, and result in earlier spring runoff. The drought of 2021 showed the potential costs when the Canadian Underwriter website stated, “crop insurance payouts in Alberta will likely reach about $1 billion later this year due to hot, dry weather that is contributing to severe drought conditions.”
Despite this serious threat to Alberta’s watersheds, the provincial government continues to promote “responsible mining” via the Coal in Alberta Fact Sheet. It states that the coal industry employs 1,500 people and generates $8 to $23 million per year in royalties.
By contrast, the agri-food sector alone contributes more than $9 billion to Alberta’s GDP and employs nearly 70,000 people, according to Devin Dreeshen, former Alberta agriculture minister. Solar energy is booming in southern Alberta and the Provincial Occupations in Alberta website indicates there are 8,100 Albertans employed as solar installers, five times the jobs currently created from coal.
The Kananaskis Park Pass introduced this summer raised more than $9 million, in a year when our tourism industry was running below capacity. This potentially exceeds the current annual royalty revenue generated by Alberta’s coal industry.
Coal mining in the Eastern Slopes threatens to extract more water from already stressed watersheds, which feed some of the most arid agricultural land in Canada. Our government fails to acknowledge the threat to our waters and continues to try and get a toehold for new coal mining projects. Within weeks of the Grassy Mountain coal project being rejected last August, the UCP government announced its first new forestry agreement in 12 years.
The 20-year agreement with Crowsnest Forest Products Ltd. allows timber harvesting over a vast expanse of the Eastern Slopes where the government wants to establish a metallurgical coal industry.
Clearing trees will make way for mining exploration and will destroy forests, vegetation and soils that preserve water during the spring melt and summer rains. Clear cut landscapes, and the associated logging roads, produce muddy runoff during the spring melt and summer storms, further eroding soil, degrading water quality, and contributing to drought conditions for the agricultural lands downstream.
The Alberta government has once again demonstrated a singular focus on resource development at the risk of long-term damage to Alberta’s watersheds and farming communities.
Robert Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. He lives in Calgary.