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Reading Water Gauges or Conducting Climate Science?

Posted on July 13, 2012
Written by Susan R. Eaton

On May 10, 2012, Alberta-based Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) announced a $1.6-million, industry-funded project to study climate change adaptation for the South Saskatchewan River Basin. Led by Alberta Innovates-Energy and Environment Solutions, a government organization that provides strategic advice to the Province, this multi-stakeholder initiative will explore improvements in water storage, infrastructure, and the timing of water withdrawals, releases and flow.

And, on May 29, 2012, Water Matters issued a report, Sharing Our Rivers: How Albertans can Maintain Healthy Rivers, Communities and Ecosystems, which called for a science-based framework for decision making that prioritizes the maintenance of river health in watershed planning. Accusing the Province of piecemeal water management without any consideration of cumulative effects, Dr. Bill Donahue, one of the report’s co-authors, says: “The result is that many of our rivers have been dying a slow death by a thousand cuts, and we remain unprepared for significant future droughts.”

Dr. David Sauchyn, a professor at the University of Regina and an expert in southern Alberta’s evolving climate, echoes Donahue’s concerns. Last year, Sauchyn, research coordinator of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC), was awarded a $2.5-millon federal grant to study climate change in southern Alberta. He says cutting-edge climate science and hydrological studies are being conducted at universities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Despite the fact that PARC has received generous support from the Province for past projects, Sauchyn said: “If Provincial officials don’t acknowledge the seriousness of climate change, how can they incorporate the newest climate change science into water management and decision-making about the allocation of water?”

A geographer by training, Sauchyn suggests that engineers manage water conservatively, hanging their hats on hundred years of water gauge data from southern Alberta, and viewing the climate as a stationary system. “From the perspective of climate science and hydrological systems, one hundred years is a drop in the bucket,” he says. “It’s going to take some unconventional and innovative thinking to solve Alberta’s water problem.”

Susan R. Eaton is a Calgary-based geologist, geophysicist, and freelance writer who reports on science, technology, energy, the environment, and ecotourism. She also manages her own environmental and energy consulting practice, SR ECO Consultants Inc.

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