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Safe Secure Drinking Water For All: cause for the rare authorization of an inter-basin transfer in the Athabasca Watershed
AWC-WPAC, Friday Read, Science, and Watershed Issues | May 2023

Caity Seifert, Drinking Water and Climate Change Adaptation and Resiliency Intern

Water is complicated. Its management, even more so. Alberta’s Water Act was implemented on October 7th, 1998. It represented a significant evolution in how the province planned and managed water. There are many laws and regulations that have developed and changed over the years to guide water management and use in Alberta. Some laws are definite and some may be ‘bent’, but only under very specific circumstances. One of these instances is the transfer of water between different river basins, referred to as an inter-basin transfer. Although inter-basin transfers are not permitted under the Water Act, in certain circumstances, a Special Act of the Legislature may allow a proposed transfer to proceed after public consultation.

Authorizations of inter-basin transfers are rare and require a high level of scrutiny.

Three major concerns addressed are:
• Quantity – No licences to transfer water outside Canada (Water Act, s. 46) as well as principles of environmental sustainability; no compelling authority to move significant quantities of water amongst basins, or from lesser-allocated areas to fully-allocated areas
• Ecological integrity and water quality – Species (fisheries, bugs, microbes, or vegetation) or water quality constituents (biological or chemical parameters) should not be transferred amongst different aquatic ecosystems
• Trans-boundary water management implications – The diversion of water between river basins within Alberta may, as a consequence, alter the amount of water that is expected to be received by downstream jurisdiction(s), which may or may not be subject to a formal agreement.

In the years since its proclamation, only seven inter-basin transfers have been authorized by the Alberta Legislature through a special act. All seven were for treated drinking waterline extensions to rural or First Nation communities.

History of inter-basin transfers in Alberta:
• 2002: North Red Deer Water Authorization Act to provide treated water to the communities of Blackfalds, Lacombe and Ponoka and the First Nations Samson Band, Ermineskin Band, Montana Band and Louis Bull Band. Transfer from the South Saskatchewan River Basin to the North Saskatchewan River Basin. [1]
• 2005: Stettler Regional Water Authorization Act to provide treated water to the communities of County of Stettler No. 6, the Villages of Donalda and Big Valley, the Summer Villages of Rochon Sands and White Sands and the Hamlets of Byemoor, Endiang, Erskine, Nevis and Red Willow. Transfer from the South Saskatchewan River Basin to the North Saskatchewan River Basin. [2]
• 2007: Town of Bashaw and Village of Ferintosh Water Authorization Act to provide treated groundwater from the Town of Bashaw to the Village of Ferintosh. Transfer from the South Saskatchewan River Basin to the North Saskatchewan River Basin. [3]
• 2007: East Central Regional Water Authorization Act to provide treated water to the County of Stettler No. 6, Lacombe County, County of Camrose No. 22, County of Paintearth No. 18 and Special Area No. 4. Transfer from the South Saskatchewan River Basin to the North Saskatchewan River Basin. [4]
• 2007: County of Westlock Water Authorization Act to provide water to the communities and residents within the County of Westlock from the Athabasca River. Transfer from the Athabasca River Basin to the North Saskatchewan River Basin. [5]
• 2017: Beaver River Basin Water Authorization Act to provide treated water to the communities and residents within the County of St. Paul No. 19, Smoky Lake County and the White Fish Lake Indian Reserve 128. Transfer from the North Saskatchewan River Basin to the Beaver River Basin. [6]
• 2020: North Saskatchewan River Basin Water Authorization Act to provide treated water to the communities and residents within Parkland County (Entwistle) and Lac Ste. Anne County (Nakamun Park). Transfer from the North Saskatchewan River Basin to the Athabasca River Basin. [7]

The most recent transfer approved to date occurs in the Athabasca River Basin. This authorization allows the transfer of water between the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca River Basins. Specifically, it allows for the transfer of treated water from Epcor Utilities in Edmonton, which draws from the North Saskatchewan River, into two communities in the Athabasca River Basin. Entwistle and the summer village Nakamun Park are now connected to West Inter Lake District Service Commission (WILD) (see
Figure 1).

Figure 1. Most of the System Service Area lies within the North Saskatchewan River Basin with just the Entwistle and Nakamun Lake area (circled in red) draining to the Pembina River and subsequently to the Athabasca River. As such, water provided to these areas served by the WILD System must be authorized by the Government of Alberta legislation as an inter-basin transfer.

This special act was justified for a few reasons, foremost to provide a safe, clean, and reliable source of drinking water. Connecting to a regional line saw significant support from locals and businesses in the area. In addition to improving drinking water quality in these communities, the transfer was deemed fiscally reasonable.

While Entwistle and Nakamun Park have nearby sources of water that could be drawn from that would not trigger this need for legislature approval, both the Alberta Government and Environment and Protected Areas are becoming increasingly reluctant to support the upgrading or development of standalone water treatment facilities when there is the opportunity to develop or expand a single regional supply hub. Regional supply systems also appeal to small and rural communities that have historically struggled with drinking water treatment operator retention or help connect the many small communities who have been without a public treatment system due to the high costs of building, maintaining and servicing their own water treatment facilities with a limited customer base. This would further limit a rural community’s ability to grow and attract new residents and businesses when the procurement and maintenance of water systems are solely up to the individual user.

Entwistle’s drinking water was previously supplied through several groundwater wells, and they had a treatment system that was due for refurbishment. This was considered to be a large expense for a small community. In addition, water quality concerns were identified with Entwistle’s groundwater source having a manganese content that exceeded the Canadian maximum acceptable concentration. This posed a significant health risk to members of the community and required additional expenses for treatment to ensure that residents’ water is safe. Nakamun Park did not have its own water distribution system and residents had to rely on truck hauls or personal wells.

While both communities had been able to provide safe drinking water to their residents, it is a responsibility that requires significant technical training and a significant investment of infrastructure and resources to be able to maintain that safe supply of drinking water. The appeal of regional systems is that by bringing together a number of municipalities and collaborating in the delivery of things like safe drinking water, you achieve economies of scale that you can’t achieve when each individual community is tasked with providing its own citizens with clean and safe drinking water. Thus it was more favourable to source these communities’ water from the nearby existing WILD service.

In this case, a regional line seems like an obvious choice. The issue lies in the water transfer from one watershed to another. Both basins are open to new water licenses, however, more analysis of the hydrology changes and environmental impact was needed before approval. By following existing transportation corridors, minimal environmental disturbance was required to extend these water supply lines. It was also determined that the amount distributed to the ~500 residents represented minimal hydrology change between the rivers. The North Saskatchewan River has an average yearly volume of 7.5 billion cubic metres flowing through Edmonton. The addition of these two communities has permitted a maximum transfer of 175,000 cubic metres of treated municipal water per year. This is equivalent to 0.00233% of the North Saskatchewan annual average volume measured at the intake site in Edmonton. The amount discharged into the Pembina watershed, and subsequently into the Athabasca River, is harder to determine. It is assumed that the bulk of the water would be recovered and released through local wastewater treatment associated with household water use. However, the amount and timing of water released may vary from instances where water is applied to the landscape, some of which may be recovered via stormwater runoff, or it may lose some volume to private septic fields, evapotranspiration, or other natural processes. Wastewater discharge also needs licensing in Alberta, so it can be estimated that the bulk of this transfer and its environmental influence on the Pembina watershed is accounted for.

The inter-basin transfer approval had to go through three bill readings at the Legislative Assembly followed by Royal Assent. It came into force in December 2020. Throughout this process, it heard the support and concerns of several members of the assembly. During the Committee Of The Whole session, hon. Member for Edmonton-Rutherford Mr. Feehan said some words in regards to Bill 42 describing the careful consideration that is needed for the approval of such transfers.

“….we are talking about, a movement of water, only a few short miles, really, in the end, but because of the nature of the geology of this province it results in water being transferred from one river basin to another. I think it’s important that we always take time to very seriously consider these kind of actions, when we are disrupting sort of the natural flow of nature, one could say, and that we be very careful that we don’t get into a habit of simply doing things because we can do them, without some consideration for the impact of making these kinds of decisions on the larger environment and therefore the wellbeing of all Albertans.”

As of 2022, Entwistle and Nakamun Park have been connected to the WILD service line, improving their water concerns and ensuring they continue to have a safe and secure supply of water in the future.