January 31, 2005

Policy analysis clarifies barriers to water conservation, proposes remedial actions

Water conservation options such as recycling water, water-saving technology and price signals represent an under-utilized and promising approach to water management that may be able to help jurisdictions like Alberta meet the demand for water while helping to preserve the watersheds that supply it, says a new report from the Canada West Foundation. Balancing Act: Water Conservation and Economic Growth concludes that water conservation is not a panacea, but it is a critical, and potentially very effective, means of addressing the dilemma presented by rising demand for a limited resource.

Karen Wilkie, a policy analyst with the Foundation and author of the report, said it "highlights the connection between water and the economy, makes an economic case for water conservation, and points to the barriers that, to date, have limited the advancement of water conservation." The report also outlines stakeholder recommendations for overcoming these barriers.

The report is based on information gathered at consultation sessions held last fall in Calgary and Edmonton with key stakeholders from a wide variety of sectors including irrigation, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, thermal power generation, economic development, and government, in addition to watershed, research, and environmental organizations. Balancing Act discusses a variety of water conservation policy options which have the potential to reduce demand on Alberta's water resources. It outlines barriers to advancing water conservation initiatives and recommends measures for overcoming these barriers.

"Our discussions with key stakeholders," she said, "left us with no doubt as to the importance of water to economic activity. Water is, unfortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, a finite resource. Even worse, it is not always available where it is needed; when it is needed; or even in the form it is needed."

Although conducted independently, the consultations summarized in the report are intended to complement Alberta's Water for Life strategy released by the provincial government in November 2003. Moreover, although the report focuses on Alberta, its findings and recommendations are applicable elsewhere in Canada, for example in neighbouring Saskatchewan, which has just launched development of its own water strategy (ELW January 17).

"Water demand is thought to be increasing in Alberta, although more in some watersheds than others," Wilkie said. "But water availability does not have to become a limit to economic growth. However, we need to treat water as a finite resource and invest in economic development that uses water efficiently," she added.

Based on the consultations, the report reviews the following four main barriers to increased water conservation.

1. Current public policy tends to discourage the efficient use of water by inadequately managing ecosystem needs, lacking innovation, and failing to integrate new scientific knowledge. Other public policy-related barriers cited included a perceived fragmentation of government decision-making, conflicting departmental goals and agendas, along with a lack of partnerships, resources, political will, and creativity in government.

2. A number of widely-held attitudes and perceptions may be impeding the advancement of water conservation, specifically the myth of abundance, the myth of entitlement, and fears that some water conservation practices are potentially harmful to human health. These attitudes and perceptions, together with an overall lack of public awareness, have limited public demand for change. Added to this is a belief among industry and agricultural users that water conservation means more government control. There are technological concerns as well: many water users feel that there are still a lot of unknowns regarding the performance of water-efficient technology.

3. Inadequate and insufficient data and information on the total supply of groundwater and surface water and on actual water use by all sectors render it difficult to make informed decisions. The lack of information on demand management and the lack of information-sharing on technology success stories and lessons learned by other organizations all pose significant barriers to advancing water conservation.

4. Limited resource availability was also singled out as a major barrier. This applies particularly to the lack of human capital within government to develop and implement new water policy and the lack of financial resources to support pilot projects, test technologies, pay for facility upgrades and provide financial incentives to encourage water conservation.

From discussions at the consultations emerged several recommendations for addressing the barriers and improving water conservation policy.

1. A clear vision of future economic development goals and the role of water conservation in achieving these goals should be developed. It was recommended that the province establish a rationale for water conservation and clearly state its goal. Is it to benefit the ecosystem or to enable economic growth and expansion?

2. Re-evaluating and restructuring the public policy framework and governance models are necessary steps to advance water conservation initiatives in Alberta. General recommendations call for the government to develop a flexible solution that recognizes regional water differences, and to pursue partnerships with the public, non-profit organizations and all water users to advance water conservation policy ideas. A number of more specific recommendations include establishing water conservation targets at the watershed-level, developing conservation targets based on forecasting and backcasting, and better integrating government decision-making (particularly watershed planning).

3. Investments should be made in education and the promotion of water conservation. All water users (including the public) should have access to up-to-date and accurate information on Alberta's water supplies. Increasing awareness and promoting long-term behavioural change is a necessary starting point for a fundamental transformation in how we currently use and value water.

4. Additional research and measurements are prerequisites to informed water policy decisions. Among the leading research priorities recommended was a review and evaluation of water conservation initiatives applied in other jurisdictions to determine their applicability in Alberta. Measurements such as the need to quantify provincial surface and groundwater supplies, measure cumulative effects, determine ecosystem demands, and measure actual water use were cited as key ingredients for informed decisions.

5. The province should examine the potential economic and environmental benefits of water-efficient technologies, and should ensure that Alberta Environment has the resources to develop policy and implement the recommendations put forth in the Water for Life strategy.

More information is available from Karen Wilkie at the Canada West Foundation, 403/264-9535, E-mail wilkie@cwf.ca. The report may be viewed on the Foundation's Web site, www.cwf.ca.

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