Addressing Climate Vulnerability and Sustainable Water Management in the South Saskatchewan River Basin

In 2016 a final report – Adaptation Roadmap for Sustainable Water Management in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) – was published by WaterSMART Solutions in collaboration with the Government of Alberta in order to address flooding and drought related concerns in and around the SSRB. The report built upon previous smaller-scale modelling completed in particular sub-basins in the SSRB which were also geared toward increasing resilience and more effectively adapting to climate change. Comprehensive work on the entirety of the SSRB was spurred by a fatal flooding event in the region in 2013 which also caused substantial damage to local built form. The report outlines a number of mostly organizational and operational changes that could be made in order to mitigate the risks of future storm events and precipitation unpredictability. Option formulation involved various relevant stakeholders including water managers as well as water users. The aforementioned potential changes to operational or organizational practices are organized firstly along a timeline in order to display which options could be implemented immediately as well as which would first require substantial time and investment. Next, options were ranked based on their degree of promise. Many of the options presented look to strengthen existing agreements and operations including water shortage-sharing in irrigation districts.

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Understanding and Assessing Impacts

This report employed extensive modelling to gain a comprehensive understanding of the flood and drought characteristics of the SSRB. Modelling was conducted primarily by HydroLogics Incorporated and was undertaken firstly at the sub-basin scale before being applied to the entire SSRB. The proprietary software called OASIS (Operational Analysis and Simulation of Integrated Systems) utilized historical data spanning 81 years while also incorporating future demand predictions and climate change forecasting. Ultimately, millions of simulated hours of river basin dynamics data was created which provided insight as to the function of the system under various scenarios. The basin-wide model – The South Saskatchewan River Operational Model (SSROM) – allowed for a broad understanding of the system, however, stakeholders raised a number of concerns regarding modelling at this ‘screening level’ phase. Among these criticisms were that models were not yet detailed enough to meaningfully address factors such as engineering and economic considerations, environmental factors or risk assessments. Further, variation in the performance measures used for each sub-basin operational model could add difficulty to comparability should the SSROM be insufficient. The report anticipates an increase in future water demand which could exacerbate drought concerns. Data also shows that future flooding and drought events could be more severe than at present.

Identifying Actions

Adaptation actions were first identified at the sub-basin level for each of the three sub-basins considered and then cross-referenced with the SSROM basin-wide model to understand their effects at the basin level. Actions were identified by water managers and users through working groups. Actions identified were then organized in a variety of ways. Firstly, actions were organized based on sub-basin. Next, each set of sub-basin actions were organized based upon the time they may take to be implemented with Level 1 being quickest and Level 3 demanding the most time. Lastly, some actions within each level ranking were labelled as being the “most promising”. The authors note that while there were not strict criteria on which to assess the ‘promising nature’ of a given action, factors such as ease of implementation, cost or impact were generally considered prior to labelling an action “most promising”. Formation of the actions presented in the 2016 final report began with the Bow River Project sub-basin study which was completed in 2010. Many of the actions identified build off of existing agreement frameworks rather than introducing completely novel approaches. For instance, while shortage-sharing agreements already exist among special irrigation districts in the region in order to more intelligently distribute water during localized drought, the same strategy has been proposed for more generalized municipal needs throughout the basin.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The authors of the Adaptation Roadmap for Sustainable Water Management in the SSRB final report are explicit about both the outcomes and their associated co-benefits which the project affords. They note that the project has allowed for “a greater shared knowledge of the SSRB water system, its management, and the potential changes that could be in store for the region’s environment and climate; and second, an available suite of tools, models, and data along with high functioning working groups to support ongoing adaptive river management”. While proposed actions are not yet fully implemented, there is a general recognition that many implemented actions would benefit from ongoing monitoring. The authors assert that the study as a whole could acts as a testament to the importance of adaptation planning. While there is a strong core of science-based data within the report and throughout the project, there is an acknowledgement that political and economic contexts could have a major bearing on the fate of the adaptation plan. It is suggested that flexibility provided by the report by virtue of the multitude of scenarios and actions explored and proposed could raise the probability of actions being implemented which conform to a given economic and political climate.

Next Steps

The authors note that the findings displayed within the report are at the nascent screening level and so there are a variety of studies that need to be undertaken prior to implementation in order to ensure robustness and reliability of actions. Studies could include cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments as well as those most concerned with how stakeholders may be directly affected. Once actions are approved the authors suggest that Level 1 strategies (those which are immediately actionable) be pursued first. Only after Level 1 strategies are implemented should Level 2 and 3 strategies (those that are more time and resource intensive) be considered. Each Level 2 and 3 action should then be considered on a case by case basis. The report further claims that a strong adaptive water management strategy will be one which is periodically and consistently revisited as contexts change. The report communicates an urgency to these next steps as the inevitability of future extreme weather events loom. Beyond navigation of the economic and social context in which these plans exist, provincial will and action are identified as paramount to the success of this project and to the resilience of the SSRB more generally. Further, as of December 2020, the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), Alberta’s government and eight irrigation districts have formalized an agreement for the Alberta Irrigation Project with the CIB investing $407.5 million. The Alberta government will contribute $244.5 million and the irrigation districts will contribute $163 million to build modern irrigation infrastructure and significantly expand irrigable land opportunities. Achieving financial close signifies all contractual steps have been completed. All partners have worked diligently to close the transaction after signing a memorandum of understanding in October. The project is the single largest irrigation expansion in Alberta’s history and will help grow Alberta’s economy and create jobs.