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Delegates urge political action on water concerns

In Perth, the capital of Western Australia, nobody doubts whether climate change is real, or that it is happening right now. A drought which began in 1975 is no longer considered a temporary phenomenon, said Dr.

In Perth, the capital of Western Australia, nobody doubts whether climate change is real, or that it is happening right now.

A drought which began in 1975 is no longer considered a temporary phenomenon, said Dr. David Post, a surface water hydrologist with Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

“It is clear that is no longer a drought,” said Post. “This is a new climate.”

While it took 20 years for Australia’s federal government to take the problem seriously, today the government-funded CSIRO supports three $10 million initiatives to better understand and predict the effects of climate change. The ultimate goal is to equip Australia with practical and effective adaptation options, with an aim to create $3 billion a year in net benefits by 2030.

Post was addressing more than 70 international hydrologists, field researchers, academics, government representatives and industry consultants at the Predictions in Ungauged Basins (PUB) conference hosted by the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS), which took place at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Centre.

The workshop drew delegates from institutions including the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, China’s Yellow River Conservancy Committee, Ludwig-Maximilians-Iniversität in Munich and India’s Bharathidasan University.

“PUB is a revolutionary scientific movement to improve hydrological prediction in regions where streamflow measurements do not exist, or are sparse, or are becoming difficult to interpret due to rapidly changing climate and weather, land use or water management,” said John Pomeroy, the Canmore-based Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change with the University of Saskatchewan, and key workshop organizer.

“PUB is desperately needed to better manage water resources as we deal with hydrological change due to the world water crisis, climate change, deforestation and resource development.”

While most of Alberta’s lower elevation watercourses are well monitored thanks to intensive agricultural irrigation, most of Canada is seriously lacking data from upper elevations, as well as in the north.

“PUB is really important to Canada because Canada is a first world country with third world stream gauging density,” Pomeroy said.

While the Earth’s climate is warming on a global scale, regional weather is becoming increasingly difficult to predict, as everyday variability with winds, precipitation and temperature fluctuations are increasing the number and frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods in Manitoba and recent wildfires in Slave Lake.

“Everyone at the workshop had seen hydrology-related events in the past year that were extreme and dangerous,” Pomeroy said. “In Europe, the Alps had their driest winter in years, Russia had forest fires and intense heat waves and China had big floods. That’s the world we’re living in now. The one in 300-years statistic doesn’t mean much anymore.”

The key, Pomeroy said, is for governments to enthusiastically fund the most advanced scientific research available. Meanwhile, during the 1990s, Canada lost 725 of its 3,500 hydrometric stations. The first PUB gathering to include both researchers and practitioners, including consulting engineers and government water managers, Pomeroy was pleased several Alberta Environment mangers attended.

“They were exposed to some very good international science,” Pomeroy said.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said Alberta was committed to making water a priority.

“Water is increasingly becoming something that all of us have come to appreciate as being a very precious gift that we have to manage properly,” Renner said.

With 80 per cent of the province’s available water being located in the north, and 80 per cent of the demand in the south, a moratorium is in place on any new water licenses being issued in the South Saskatchewan River basin, including the Bow River. Alberta’s system of prior appropriation, known as FITFIR (first in time, first in rights), no longer meets the demands of a growing region.

“That’s not to say that we have to put a stop to all the development,” Renner said. “Here in Alberta, growth is something that we’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis and we’ve put the necessary policies in place to manage that growth and to continue to protect the environment and to continue to protect water systems.”

Renner said his department was focussing on a new strategy called Cumulative Effects Environmental Management, which bases decision making on desired outcomes rather than inputs. The strategy was adopted in anticipation that oil sands upgrading and petrochemical industry development is sure to ramp up as the global recession recovers.

Taking questions, Renner was queried by University of Nevada representative Doug Boyle who, citing a presentation by an Alberta Environment employee the previous evening, questioned how, in times of drought, southern Alberta license holders had voluntarily shared their allocations.

Speaking the previous day, Bob Sandford, Epcor chair of Canada’s Water for Life Initiative, cautioned how politicians need respond wisely to exactly such scenarios.

“A difficult barrier appears to stand in the way of making scientific research findings relevant and meaningful at the most senior levels of policy-making,” Sandford said. “In some provinces and federally, governments appear to be increasingly anti-science in their disposition.

“The more research that is done on water, for example, the greater the threat the energy sector and resource extraction industries appears to pose to long-term water quality, which suggests the need for more regulation which translates into higher costs which will affect profits and competitiveness.

“This view is supported and perpetuated by heavy political lobbying. Science is seen to be generating bad news leading to dark predictions that demand policy and regulatory choices that no one in office wants to make.”

Rather than be threatened by the experts’ recommendations, politicians must act on problems being understood by science now, he said.

“We can and should be dealing with emerging hydrological problems now, while time and prosperity are on our side, so that as our populations grow and our climate changes, our social and economic future is not limited by growing water availability and quality conflicts we could have and should have avoided or resolved in more stable times,” Sandford said.

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