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Alberta’s government announced Wednesday it will explore building new reservoirs, part of $35-million in proposed spending to optimize water use and increase drought resilience throughout the province.

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz said $23-million will be spent over the next three years on modernizing Alberta’s water management systems, including new or upgraded water storage projects. She cited only one specific project: The government will pay $4.5-million to study the feasibility of the Ardley Water Reservoir, a proposed project just east of Red Deer.

“My department will also conduct a province-wide review to identify other areas where water storage is needed most and what projects would have the biggest impact,” she added.

Ms. Schultz said those projects are intended to keep more water in the province, for irrigation and other purposes.

“In the past, what has often been raised with me is the fact that we pass along more than our obligated share of water into Saskatchewan,” she said.

“And that’s really where projects like this have come from – how are we maximizing the water infrastructure we have to make sure that we are actually using the water allocation that we have access to, and not allowing that all to continue on through into other jurisdictions.”

Saskatchewan’s Environment Ministry did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday.

Ms. Schulz also announced her government would earmark $8.7-million for restoring degraded and destroyed wetlands. That would be provided to municipalities, Indigenous communities, watershed groups and non-profit organizations from across the province who applied for project funding. Well over half of wetlands across the Canadian Prairies have already been drained or destroyed, much of that to make way for agriculture.

Large swaths of Alberta are suffering drought, particularly its southern regions, which significantly affected the agricultural sector last year. The government recently forecast $2.9-billion in disaster and emergency expenses for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, caused by the drought as well as floods and wildfires.

In its latest outlook for water supply, released Monday, the government said above-normal precipitation in February has improved the outlook for water volumes throughout the South Saskatchewan River Basin, whose major tributaries include the Oldman, Bow and Red Deer rivers. Nonetheless, water supply is still forecast to be below average in the Oldman River, Milk River and North Saskatchewan River basins. Volumes could reach average levels in the Bow River and Red Deer River basins, however.

The government has convened a “drought command team” led by its Environment Ministry to work with water users and other arms of government to respond if severe drought strikes this year. It’s also drafting an emergency plan and hired WaterSMART, a consultancy, to help with drought modelling and propose ways of optimizing water use.

In its 2024 budget unveiled in late February, the government committed to spend $75-million over three years to improve water availability and manage drought. That budget earmarked $5-million in its capital plan for the Ardley Reservoir.

For several years the government has been exploring building a reservoir on the Bow River upstream of Calgary to mitigate floods and droughts. A feasibility study examining three options for achieving that is scheduled to wrap up in December. Others calling for new reservoirs include the United Irrigation District, which has called for a feasibility study for new storage on the Belly River in southern Alberta.

But there are other possibilities for increasing a province’s resilience to drought, such as shifting to less-intense water use. Among industries, irrigation consumes by far the most water in Alberta; other major users include oil and gas producers, pulp mills and municipalities.

Alberta is already seeking to reduce collective water use through continuing negotiations among large users, which began in February. The province hopes those negotiations will head off the need to declare a state of emergency, a move that might force it to prioritize some water users over others. The province has never had to do that before.

“Typically we would prioritize things like human health and safety, animal health and safety,” Ms. Schulz said.

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