LETHBRIDGE: Some activists and political reps are adding a note of caution to a southern Alberta group's efforts to revamp water rules.
Bob Tarleck, the former mayor of Lethbridge, spoke to city council Monday on behalf of a southern Alberta economic alliance, called the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, that will lobby government to "pursue regionally appropriate economic development opportunities, particularly but not exclusively in the food processing sector, while at the same time ensuring long-term water assets to meet our important social and environmental obligations into the future." Tarleck says the group is particularly interested in water licenses and finding ways to open water use to more business.
Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor says such an initiative could become a slippery slope. "The minute you talk about economic value for water, to me that means commercialization. The minute you commercialize water it becomes a commodity, then it will become open market on water because of NAFTA," said Pastoor. "That really, really concerns me. We barely have enough water for ourselves without having to ship it across the border."
Tarleck says his group isn't trying to "rob Peter to pay Paul," but rather they want to find out more about how water is being used in the region and look for ways to increase business opportunities. They'll talk to stakeholders and develop a lobby message which they plan to share with politicians and decision-makers.
A representative with one of the province's most prominent water advocacy groups says a government review of water allocation rules is definitely needed. Joe Obad, the associate director of Water Matters, says there are already several examples of private business and economic groups taking advantage of loop holes in the system that may endanger public access to water. His group has already brought a couple of these cases before the courts.
They decided to take legal action when the Eastern Irrigation District, the Bow River Irrigation District and the Western Irrigation Districts put in applications for a "change of purpose," which could allow license holders to effectively transfer part of their license to private business that wants water access. The process skirts around the public process of government approval required for an "official" license transfer, where a business would need to prove their need for water access was in the public interest.
"Applying for a change of purpose effectively puts irrigation districts in the driver's seat to determine who gets water, which we think is a function of government," said Obad. "Instead of the government engaging long-standing licensees in a conversation about the new demands on water in a new economy and deciding openly what our future should be in terms of water use between different sectors, we're having our economic policy relative to water being decided by license holders who've sat on their licenses for a hundred years or more."
Lethbridge is not a member of SouthGrow and city council denied the group's request for $5,000 in funding. They did, however, vote in favour of giving SouthGrow access to information about how the city uses water.