Parkland Institute
Op-eds | June 01, 2011

Frontier Centre’s argument not based in fact

Changing water allocation system requires careful analysis of all alternatives

Parkland Institute

As Alberta’s population continues to increase, and the economy continues to grow, so too do concerns about the future availability of water, particularly in the semi-arid south. How the government deals with the critical issue of water allocation in the province will have significant consequences not only for the province’s population centres, but also for the province’s water-intensive agricultural industry, economic growth and the long-term sustainability of critical provincial eco-systems.

Developing this kind of policy is most effective when accompanied by an informed public debate of all the pertinent issues and a consultation process that allows for genuine expression of the needs and priorities of all stakeholders, including the environment, followed by thoughtful consideration of a broad range of alternatives.

The Alberta government, despite having promised on a number of occasions over the last couple of years to do just that, has to date failed on both counts. Consultation by government has been limited mostly to backroom conversations with industry and select other stakeholders and the only alternative they have looked at for allocating water on a go-forward basis is the development of a full-fledged water market for the province.

When government is not up to the task of engaging stakeholders and the public — one and the same when dealing with water — it becomes the responsibility of civil society to inform the public of what the issues are, provide resources and information, and engage in public dialogue about the policy alternatives.

Numerous civil society groups have taken up this challenge over the last year and begun working to provide information to Albertans about the potential costs and benefits of various options for a new water allocation system. These have included advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Public Interest Alberta (PIA), stakeholders like the province’s various irrigation districts and research organizations like Water Matters and the C.D. Howe Institute.

Another group that has jumped into the discussion is the Frontier Centre, a Winnipeg-based conservative think tank that tends to default to promoting market-based private alternatives in public policy. Their contribution to this debate in particular has taken the form of an op-ed article published in a number of rural Alberta newspapers. Unfortunately, the focus of this intervention by the Frontier Centre seems to be more about discrediting and shutting out other groups from participation in the debate rather than about genuinely examining alternatives. Even more unfortunate is the fact they have chosen to do this by misrepresenting the positions and arguments of these groups rather than genuinely engaging in dialogue.

The column’s author, policy analyst Joseph Quesnel, claims groups like Sierra Club and PIA are anti-market and that their “alarmist and unscientific” attitudes contribute nothing to the debate. He tries to back up this claim by misrepresenting their positions and questioning their credentials, implying that only “water conservation experts and water management economists” should be allowed to participate in a public discussion about water in Alberta. This statement should be incredibly insulting to all Albertans who feel they have a stake in the government’s water policy and a right to participate in informing what that policy looks like.

I’ve read the materials that have been put out and circulated by these groups and can say unequivocally that they are founded in solid research and facts. I can’t, unfortunately, say the same thing about Quesnel’s column.

He says, for example, that environmentalist organizations claim that commercial uses of water should be at the very bottom of a hierarchical water use structure and that environmentalists naively fail to understand that commercial uses of water create jobs. Interestingly, there is nothing in the environmentalist literature to back up either of these statements.

Sierra, PIA and other organizations do, however, call on the provincial government to ensure that ecosystem health, basic human needs and First Nation rights are prioritized. What this means is that, in a time of shortage, if the choice comes down to providing water to industry or providing water to meet basic human needs, Alberta should have an allocation system that defaults to meeting basic human needs without humans having to pay for that water. I would be very shocked if Quesnel disagreed with that premise.

He goes on to say that, “if we only hear from the Sierra Club, we’ll ignore potential solutions and we would miss examples from Australia and the Western United States, where water markets have helped address water shortage.” Again, quite the opposite is true, as these groups have repeatedly raised the Australian example in their literature and presentations. Australia moved to a water market system as a way of dealing with scarcity, but the market did not result in any greater efficiency of water use or increased conservation. In fact, things got so bad in Australia after the introduction of the market system, that in 2009 the Australian government had to allocate $3 billion worth of taxpayer money to buy back water rights from the marketplace in order to ensure eco-system survival. Taxpayers suffered, conservation did not improve and the only ones who benefited from the water market were the brokers making billions of dollars buying and selling water rights. Is this what Quesnel is hoping that Sierra and PIA would advocate to adopt?

In the end, what these groups are asking of government is for the active and thoughtful consideration of allocation alternatives beyond their exclusive focus on markets and pricing. Although the Frontier Centre claims to share this belief in consideration of multiple alternatives, all of their literature on this subject seems designed to completely shut down proposals from anyone not embracing the market model. How is that constructive to the debate?

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