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Potential water restrictions in Canmore's drought response plan

“The province is saying please be mindful, please plan and be prepared,”
Participants enjoy paddle boarding at stand-up paddle boarding lesson and ride hosted by the Canmore Youth Network and guided by the Bow Valley SUP and surf team at Rundle Forebay Reservoir in Canmore on Thursday (July 6). JUNGMIN HAM RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – A drought response plan could have the Town of Canmore issue municipal outdoor water restrictions if necessary.

The restrictions would have a scale of normal, dry, very dry and extremely dry and could limit times, days and/or certain outdoor watering activities where water doesn’t quickly return to the Bow River.

“Even if the province doesn’t call for us to make any reductions, I think it’s a smart and environmentally conscious thing to do,” said Shannon Woods, the Town’s water resource engineer, noting internal discussions by Town staff and with stakeholders in the community would take place before issuing a restriction.

Woods said there would be exemptions such as washing vehicles for occupational health and safety purposes, washing outdoor surfaces such as childcare facilities or animal kennels, watering plants for commercial sale and watering athletic turf for safety and risk reasons.

She added consumptive use, where water is returned to the Bow River within hours or days of use, would be targeted, except anything exempted.

The Town will launch a website with more information.

Water restrictions are relatively common in most of Alberta and the country and are used to conserve water where possible.

In nearby Okotoks, the outdoor watering schedule runs from May 1 to Oct. 31 and limits days and hours when people can water lawns. Its council amended its water bylaw and Water Shortage Response Plan last month to have five water conservation stages, which can also prohibit outdoor watering.

The Town of Cochrane has three levels of water restrictions and has several conservation tactics, while the City of Calgary has four water stages that may restrict outdoor watering.

However, any water restriction would only be for those using municipal water, meaning if a property was connected to another water licence it would be exempt from a municipal restriction.

“If someone else had a water licence in the town or adjacent to the town it would not affect what they did with that licence,” Woods said. “If a golf course has a licence, they may continue to use water from that licence in a way that they see fit. Hopefully, they would reduce as well, but if they were using Town water it would apply to them.”

The staff report noted the Town has four main water licences – two drawing from groundwater and two from surface water – and is considered a small licence holder. It diverted and treated 2.84 million cubic metres of water. However, the licences allow for a maximum of 5.13 million cubic metres each year, meaning it used about 55 per cent last year.

The Town monitors both ground and surface water, with nine shallow monitoring wells, two observation wells and six piezometers, which is similar to a well.

In what’s projected to be the worst drought in Alberta since 2001, the province told all municipalities to review and understand water licences they may have, see how much water is used and find ways to reduce usage, utilize water conservation technologies, develop drought plans and monitor water availability.

Woods said the province hasn’t mandated water restrictions, but is supportive of a municipality putting in some form of restriction.

“The province is saying please be mindful, please plan and be prepared,” she said.

Among the long-term strategy to conserve water is ongoing work to detect and repair leaks, replace aging watermains and install flow meters for major watermains.

In 2023, there were eight watermain breaks and seven were planned, according to the annual report from EPCOR.

Canmore’s municipal water loss was about 23 per cent last year, which is a low since 2000. In comparison, 2000 had a water loss of about 32 per cent and a high of about 37 per cent in 2003. Since 2015, it’s slowly gone down.

Andreas Comeau, the Town’s manager of public works, said as pipes in the valley bottom are replaced with newer ones – which will take place in the next 10-15 years – it’ll gradually improve.

“If we can hit 10 per cent, I think we’re very fortunate,” he said.

The Utility Master Plan identifies several water-related repair or replacement issues in the coming 10-15 years. Water pipes are typically forecasted to last 75 years, but as they near the end of life they become more susceptible to leaking. The plan noted about 64 per cent of water pipes are 30 years old or less.

“We have a lot of infrastructure that has been around for a long time, especially in the valley bottom, there are watermains built in the 1960s. … As infrastructure ages, it’s more likely to leak,” Woods said. “That’s really where we can focus.”

On the province’s drought condition website, as of April 15, the water supply outlook for the Bow River basin is forecasting flow volumes to range from much below average to average. The snowpack survey in the Bow River basin had 11 of 17 sites at normal levels, but the lowest was at Sunshine Village showing about 100 millimetres below its normal range at this time of year.

As of April 17, Spray Reservoir is about 13 per cent full, while nearby Barrier Lake is 32 per cent with Upper Kananaskis Lake roughly at 37 per cent and Lower Kananaskis at 84 per cent capacity.

A March 6 measurement of the Bow River had it at its lowest level in March in the last 24 years.

The province has 51 water shortage advisories in place as of April 15.

The province is undergoing talks with large water licence holders for potential chances of sharing and smaller licence holders are recommended to take precautionary efforts.

According to the province’s Alberta Water Licence Viewer website, which lists water licences across Alberta, there are about 45 water licences in and around Canmore.

The licence holders range from public entities such as the Town of Canmore, Municipal Affairs, Environment and Protected Areas to private ones such as Spring Creek Mountain Village, Three Sisters Mountain Village, Stewart Creek Golf Corporation, Canmore Golf and Curling Club and several hotels. The dates of issue range from as early as the 1950s to the 2000s.

For one of its water licences, the Town and AltaLink discovered a commercial agreement in 2022 during the design for upcoming work on pumphouse No. 2.

Though it has no immediate or mid-term issue, it will leave less being able to be withdrawn in the long-term. The Town can continue to withdraw water, but it would have to be stored offsite and treated at a different time leading to a need to eventually increase capacity for a reservoir.

Talks are ongoing between the province and large licence holders in the South Saskatchewan river basin and are expected to be concluded this month.

More than 80 per cent of Alberta’s water comes from the northern part of the province, but 80 per cent of demand is in the southern area of the province. There are roughly 25,000 water licences for close to 10 billion cubic metres of water.

The South Saskatchewan River basin has halted water licences being given since 2006. Under Alberta’s system of first-in-time, first-in-right, the most senior licence holders get their full share.

The last water licence in the South Saskatchewan River basin was issued to Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Limited.

The bulk of the province’s water licences draw from surface sources and roughly 68 per cent goes to agricultural use. A further 22 per cent is used for industrial purposes and about seven per cent is for municipalities, according to data from Alberta’s flow estimation tool for ungauged watersheds.

The Bow Valley is part of the Bow River sub-basin, which is within the South Saskatchewan River basin.

Caitlin Miller, the Town’s manager of protective services and director of emergency management, said drought levels and water restrictions can be a factor in wildfire response.

“Drought coding is used to determine wildfire risk. It’s something we look at frequently,” she said. “We’re also working internally as administration to monitor our hazards in a more comprehensive way, so when we were talking about drought we’re looking at fire and flooding risk, which can seem counterintuitive, but drought conditions can lead to better flooding conditions, especially on our steep creeks.”

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