How to Save Alberta’s Waterways

Three contributors to the recently published book Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West share their thoughts on what immediate action should be taken to protect and conserve water in Alberta.


photograph supplied by university of calgary press; Leslie Sweder, Last Light, SW Corner of Confluence, July 18, 2017

Book cover of Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West.


A new book of essays calls on readers to rethink the ways we think about water. Published in July, Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West is based on presentations from last year’s Calgary Institute for the Humanities Annual Community Forum: Water in the West. 

Three contributors to the book — artist and academic Warren Cariou, environmental coordinator Flora Giesbrecht and lawyer David K. Laidlaw — answered our question: What is the best course of immediate action that should be taken to protect and conserve water in Alberta?


photograph by alison calder

Warren Cariou
“Petrography & Water: Artist’s Statement & Portfolio”

Warren Cariou, a professor at the University of Manitoba, says it was not his plan to create visual art when he first visited bitumen mining sites near Fort McMurray. But he felt that he needed a way to show what was happening to the environment in the region, so Cariou began to take photographs of the areas affected by bitumen mining. 


His answer:

“There have got to be legislative responses to solidify some of the protections that are in place now. Policy is crucial because individual choices can have some effect, but I think we have to rely on our government to make the right decisions to protect our water and land, because they’re setting the parameters within which companies are operating. 

“As citizens, one of the most important things we can do is contact our governments [and] lobby our politicians. In another way, it’s important for artists, but also for citizens to remind one another of the connectedness that we have to water. That’s something that art and writing and video and film can do, is reinforce those intimate connections. For me that’s a crucial component [in addition] to the legislative and lobby component.”


photograph by sasha hughes

Flora Giesbrecht, 
“The Elbow River Watershed Partnership”

The Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) is a non-profit organization that aims to ensure the continued health and protection of the Elbow River watershed. In her essay, watershed coordinator Flora Giesbrecht describes the range of ERWP programs, including educational activities for students and restoration work.


Her answer:

“Look at the land uses and the cumulative effects they may have on water quality and quantity. For example, in the Elbow basin there is no single land use that dramatically affects water quality; it is the cumulative effects we should be concerned about: cattle grazing, logging activity, oil and gas [and] development, if it’s done in a manner that’s not taking into consideration the ecosystems...

“Industry and homes can minimize water consumption. According to recorded history, Alberta (especially Southern Alberta) is considered semi-arid and prone to drought; we need to protect and value what we have. In terms of conserving water there are certain actions that [individuals] can take, and it’s also important to look at industry. Industry uses a lot of water, depending on what is being manufactured or processed, so we applaud when new technologies are being used that are helping to conserve water.”    


photograph courtesy of david k. laidlaw

David K. Laidlaw, 
“Indigenous Water Rights & Global Warming in Alberta”

David K. Laidlaw is a research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Resources Law and specializes in Aboriginal law. In his essay, he presents a history of Indigenous rights regarding water in Alberta and discusses the effect of climate change on those waters. 


His answer:

“Historically, agricultural uses have had a huge allocation of existing water supplies and that’s from the government’s water policy that provides for extensive unlimited use of water rights. The way it works is that the government allocates a fixed amount for an indefinite period of time at a very limited cost to the water users. It’s based on a priority system, such that if you’re the last in line — in other words you’re the most recent person granted a water right — you will be denied any sort of water right, even though the prior owners will have not necessarily used all of their water allocation. 

“I would suggest getting started on renegotiating the water allocation system in Alberta. [It] is a priority and it’ll take time. Best get started now. The area that we live in, the South Saskatchewan River Basin, is highly stressed. It’s almost fully allocated. In terms of climate change, it’s predicted that we will see increasing conflict between municipal uses, agricultural uses and matters of that nature.” 


This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Avenue Calgary. Subscribe here.


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