Jan 212013
 
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Alberta Conservatives not interested in public opinion regarding our water.

by Ricardo Acuña
 

For more than four years, Albertans have been waiting for the government's promised consultation on water allocation in the province. But a leaked government document, released publicly last week by Our Water Is Not For Sale (OWINFS), suggests that what we will actually get will be much more a one-sided conversation.

In September 2008, as part of the government's Water for Life implementation strategy, Alberta's Minister of the Environment Rob Renner announced that his government would be reviewing how Alberta allocates water to various users in the province, and would place any necessary changes in legislation.

After a fair bit of public outcry around the prospect of letting the marketplace determine who gets water and how much, the government promised that no policy decisions would be made without holding extensive public consultations first.

There was growing consensus at the time that Alberta's current First-In-Time First-In-Right system of water allocation was badly in need of an overhaul. Over allocation of many of the province's waterways, an oil and gas industry that is highly dependent on fresh water and years of drought in the south of the province have all highlighted the weakness of the system in recent years, and resulted in near crises in some areas.

The government, however, began the review process by commissioning three high-level reports on water allocation in Alberta. Predictably, given the presence of conservative economists, oil industry execs and pro-business government folk working on these reports, all three of them recommended that the path forward for water allocation in Alberta lay in moving toward a largely unregulated market system where water access would be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

After a fair bit of public outcry around the prospect of letting the marketplace determine who gets water and how much, the government promised that no policy decisions would be made without holding extensive public consultations first. The promise of broad and genuine consultations on water allocation was repeated by Alison Redford during the Conservative leadership race, and again during the provincial election.

It now appears that the government is finally ready to move forward on this promise with planned public meetings in 20 cities and towns across the province to take place in February and March. The problem is that what the government is planning to deliver has no resemblance whatsoever to what was promised.

For starters, the government documents make clear that a discussion of the First-In-Time First-In-Right system will be entirely "off the table" during the consultations. Instead, the conversation will only focus on four "priority areas": the "appropriate" use of water in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the oil patch, ensuring efficient and effective water management, maintaining sustainable drinking water and wastewater systems and maintaining healthy lakes.

What was supposed to be a consultation on how we move from our current archaic system of water allocation to a more just, equitable and sustainable system has now explicitly declared that very topic out of bounds.

There is no question that these are all important issues worthy of discussion, but somehow what was supposed to be a consultation on how we move from our current archaic system of water allocation to a more just, equitable and sustainable system has now explicitly declared that very topic out of bounds.

The second major area of concern is that even in the four identified areas for discussion, there will be next to no room for actual public input. The public meetings are structured in such a way that there will only be a grand total of 30 minutes at each one for Albertans to actually provide input on the issues. The bulk of the remaining two-and-a-half hours at the meetings will be dedicated to presentations on behalf of the government.

Perhaps this is why the leaked documents, which are available on the OWINFS website, identify what the government is seeking to get out of this conversation not as valuable input and insight from Albertans, but rather that "citizens appreciate that there is no water crisis today," although some changes may be required in the "coming decades." The goals of the conversation are further clarified with the statement that "the water conversation is not about setting policy."

The government documents make clear that the main issue they are seeking to address is not a problem with water allocation in Alberta, but rather that they have not been able to move forward with policy "due to challenges associated with trust and confidence." In other words, the ultimate goal of this million-dollar process is not to actually consult Albertans, but rather to convince them that all is well and that the government will take care of whatever issues may arise without anyone needing to worry about it.

Albertans are getting a million-dollar public-relations exercise that will enable government to say they have consulted with Albertans and then proceed to do whatever they want with water policy.

In the end, after four years of waiting for a genuine and comprehensive consultation on water allocation in the province, what Albertans are getting is a million-dollar public-relations exercise that will enable government to say they have consulted with Albertans and then proceed to do whatever they want with water policy.

History has taught us that what they do will not be based on the public interest and expressed needs of Albertans, but rather on the private interests and wishes of some unnamed stakeholders with privileged access to the ears of the premier and her cabinet. Albertans deserve better, and they deserve to be heard. The future of our water is far too important to be left solely in the hands of this government and their closest friends.

About Ricardo Acuña


Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

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