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Birds fly down to the Red Deer River which near the hamlet of Dorothy, Alta. in 2023.Jude Brocke/The Globe and Mail

A regional agency in Alberta has banned oil and gas operations from using its treated water, as a severe drought parching Western Canada leads municipalities to prepare restriction plans.

The Mountain View Regional Water Services Commission owns and operates the Anthony Henday Water Treatment Plant on the banks of the Red Deer River, northwest of Innisfail in central Alberta. Earlier this month, it passed a motion to suspend water being used for fracking – an oil and gas activity where water is injected at high pressure to fracture rocks, getting at the oil and gas trapped inside.

The past three years have brought drought and water shortages to much of Alberta. Gravel pits in parts of the province that are usually full of water are now dry, and dugouts that haven’t been empty in 20 years have shrivelled up. The weather phenomenon El Niño is compounding the situation with another warm and dry winter.

The province is already at its second-highest level of water management because of a lack of rain and the early depletion of mountain snow last year. The next stage is a province-wide emergency.

“Everybody’s on the same page,” said Lance Colby, chair of the Mountain View water commission and the mayor of Carstairs, one of the six communities that uses water from the Anthony Henday plant.

“We know and understand what we can and can’t do with water, so there was no pushback when we passed the motion that the towns make sure that water isn’t being used on fracking,” he said in an interview.

The motion came after the province gave notice about the possibility of severe drought this year, Mr. Colby said. As a result, the commission is planning its full water-use strategy, part of which is figuring out exactly where water is going.

Currently there’s no data on how much Mountain View water – if any – is being bought by oil and gas companies. With farmers and trucking companies coming and going, “we’re not sure who’s loading up,” Mr. Colby said.

But now municipalities will keep a tighter handle on bulk water sales to make sure they aren’t being used for fracking. “Our main goal is to make sure we supply the water to the residents,” he said. “Our mandate was never to supply water for fracking.”

As part of provincial drought preparations, the Alberta Energy Regulator told the oil and gas industry in December that it should start making plans to use less water, warning that access may be restricted and some companies may not be able to divert water toward their operations in 2024.

The warning applied to all energy companies that hold water licences, which are required for diverting water for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. But the regulator hinted that those operating in southern Alberta – where the drought is more severe – were most at risk of being affected by mitigation measures.

The drought is driving crucial but complex discussions around how Albertans value water, and how it’s used by different industries that drive the province’s economy, said Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.

“We all recognize that oil and gas is important. The conversation always is what alternative sources of water can you use,” Mr. McLauchlin said in an interview.

“The industry has been great at reducing the amount of water for a lot of those purposes, especially for fracking. But this is that conversation around how should we use water and how should water be contributing to GDP? We obviously need domestic water supply, and at the same time, water requirements for agriculture.”

Oil and gas activities comprised 11.87 per cent of the water licensed for diversion from Alberta’s rivers and lakes in 2020. For comparison, municipalities were allocated 12 per cent and agriculture 46.6 per cent.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, the fossil-fuel industry used only about 21 per cent of its total allocation in 2022. The vast majority of water the sector used – about 82 per cent – was recycled. In oil sands operations specifically, 80 per cent of the total water used for mining was recycled. The rest was closely split between surface runoff or groundwater on site, and the Athabasca River.

Parched conditions have led Alberta to develop a drought advisory committee and a 2024 drought emergency plan.

During a telephone town hall Tuesday, Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz said Alberta is unlikely to receive enough precipitation to prevent a serious drought.

And that drought won’t be limited to Southern Alberta, said Stacey Smythe, assistant deputy minister with Alberta Environment.

Many rivers and reservoirs are at or near historic lows because of several years of below-average precipitation, she said, and Alberta’s snowpack is also well below normal range for this time of year.

“We’re not even seeing normal accumulation yet, let alone the extra precipitation needed to help our reservoirs and rivers recover,” Ms. Smythe said.

“If this extreme level of dryness continues, the situation is going to impact all of Alberta. It is a societal issue, not an environmental issue.”

Ms. Schulz said the government will be developing voluntary water-sharing agreements as part of drought preparations.

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