Booming Alberta town close to maxing out its water licence capacity

Cochrane, about 20 kilometres west of Calgary city limits, is facing many challenges as its population surges. ( Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Cochrane, about 20 kilometres west of Calgary city limits, is facing many challenges as its population surges. ( Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Booming growth in Cochrane, Alta., is putting pressure on the town as it edges closer to maxing out its water licence capacity.

Like other municipalities in the region, the town relies on a licence to draw the water it needs from the Bow River. But with no new water licences being granted by the provincial government and a growing population, the community needs solutions.

In the mid-2000s, the province put a moratorium on applications for any new water licences for the entire South Saskatchewan basin, which includes the Bow, Red Deer and Old Man rivers.

Cochrane's mayor, Jeff Genung, describes the town as one of the fastest growing communities in Canada.

Its water licence is good for up to 44,000 residents, but it's now less than 6,000 people away from reaching that limit — as more and more housing developments are planned.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"It's paper water. It's not that the river is drying up and we're not going to have any water. This is the ability to be able to draw more water," said Genung.

"People think one day we're going to approve another subdivision and they're going to turn a tap on and not have water. That's not what we're talking about," he said. "But we're quickly getting to the place where we need to find more."

The town has been focusing on household water conservation, such as encouraging low-flow fixtures and toilets as well as limiting water during the summer months. This has worked to extend the life of the town's water licence and buy it some time.

The town has also been focused on fixing leaks in its water system to make sure it's not losing water needlessly, as part of a wider water strategy.

"It's getting to the end of tweaking these kinds of things, and now we have to find a real solution," said Genung.

The town has submitted an application with Alberta Environment as it seeks a solution, but it could take many months to process. It's also looking at the possibility of a new water treatment facility, storage and other infrastructure pieces for the longer term.

"It would be nice if the provincial government recognized those communities that rely on the Bow River basin for our drinking water. There's real costs to our community for additional licences. We could go on the water licence market and buy them, but they're 30-, 40-, 50-million dollars."

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"We're in a unique situation in Alberta where we have a lot of the population but not a lot of the water. So it's really costly to continue to develop," he said.

Whatever the solution is, it needs to take the overall health and future of Alberta's rivers and aquatic ecosystems into account, according to an Alberta-based water advisory organization.

"You cannot have a successful society in a failed watershed," said Kim Sturgess, CEO of WaterSmart Solutions.

"You need to make sure it's maintaining a healthy aquatic ecosystem and that there's water for the people, water for the animals, water for the environment. In our work, we always look at the basin as a whole, as an entire system."

LISTEN | How southern Alberta can keep growing and have enough water to go around:

Sturgess says it's all about balancing any potential impacts.

"What's best for the overall basin? Where can we find ways to make the basin work better? Being able to find ways to make things work for people like Cochrane is good for everybody," said Sturgess.

The mayor says a solution could involve the town looking to other municipalities, commercial interests and even holders of irrigation licences to buy and transfer more capacity. But he says they are all facing the same capacity issues.

"There's a real market out there, and there are even water brokers now that will sell licences — for a commercial use, a golf course, it could be anything — and we're looking at how to acquire some of those."

Google Maps
Google Maps

Another option, Genung says, is the town asking developers who are looking to build new communities if water licences are something they could possibly bring to the table themselves.

"It's new for us, and if we don't act, we'll be in a position like Okotoks a few years ago, where they just can't add any more. So if they can help us and bring a solution to the table, we'll look at it."

In an emailed response sent to CBC News, Cochrane's executive director of development and infrastructure services says partnership with other parties will be key to any solution.

"We need to work with different stakeholders in an attempt to secure additional water licensing as we are within a closed basin," Drew Hyndman said.

"We are currently engaged with a number of different parties, exploring innovative solutions to our water licensing challenges, and remain confident our collaborative efforts will result in a positive outcome for our community," he said.

Genung says he hopes to see real progress made over the coming months.