Located on the edge of southern Alberta's foothills and close to Calgary, the community of Okotoks has been a popular destination for people seeking a small-town feel not far from the big city.
But the town, located roughly 47 kilometres south of Calgary, now estimates it only has nine years of development left before continued issues around getting a new water source force developers to put down their shovels.
Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn says as water licenses dry up the town has had to slow growth, as well as its plans to build affordable housing.
"That really is where the impact for Okotoks specifically is for water, it's impacting the affordability and viability of our community," Thorn said.
Thorn hopes a joint project between Okotoks and the Municipal District of Foothills could help the town overcome this hurdle. But there are concerns about whether there's sufficient funding to make that happen.
In 2020, Okotoks and Foothills entered into a memorandum of understanding with the goal to move forward on a regional water solution for the future. It could include a water pipeline and a reservoir.
But as the project moves through the planning and approval phases, there's concern that its cost will soak up too much money and make it difficult to meet other community needs.
"If we have to finance this pipeline fully ourselves with debt, that means then that other infrastructure needs or other requirements for our municipalities, we don't have the capacity for that," Thorn said.
Currently, Okotoks draws its entire water supply from the Sheep River, but water licensing from that source has been running dry for years.
An estimated $50-million project would pipe in water from the Bow River east of Okotoks into town, through Aldersyde, to the planned Foothills County Water Treatment Plant, and also create a reservoir.
The land is already acquired, and a pipeline route planned to draw water from the Bow River.
While environmental approvals could come soon, Foothills Reeve Delilah Miller says funding talks with the province haven't gone well so far.
Foothills, Okotoks lobby government for funding
"We're getting the response that there isn't any funding, there's no money for this project," Miller said.
For Foothills, this project is less of an immediate need but will help the community in planning for the future and to continue servicing industrial corridors.
"Water is so important to all of our communities here that we'd be remiss if we didn't join in with the partnership with Okotoks and both work together to try and achieve our water needs in the future," Miller said.
In Okotoks, water licensing issues are hampering development as a whole, it is also taking a toll on the town's affordable housing strategy.
Hampering growth, affordability
Over the last five years, according to the Canadian census, Okotoks grew 4.8 per cent. Thorn pointed out that that is less than other communities in the region. And it's not because people don't want to move to Okotoks.
It's because of a lack of housing supply directly linked to these water access issues.
Right now, Mayor Thorne adds, there's pressure to build out several approved area redevelopment plans, and not enough water licenses for all of that work to continue.
Developing industry supports water solution
The Building Industry and Land Development Association Calgary Region is watching this closely.
BILD CEO Brian Hahn said the federal government's budget focuses on affordable housing. And for industry partners to keep delivering housing for all, especially in the Okotoks region, the town needs to unlock more capacity.
According to the province, this project is in the funding queue as part of The Alberta Municipal Water/Wastewater Partnership program, which helps support water systems for communities with populations of less than 45,000.
"All applications to receive funding through Water for Life and Alberta Municipal Water/Wastewater Partnership are currently under review, and that includes the Okotoks/Foothills County submission," wrote Rob Williams, press secretary of the provincial minister of transportation.
"We expect to have a decision on all submissions soon."