By Kevin Van Tighem
If you are worried about Lethbridge’s water security, you probably should be. Trouble looms on the western horizon.
People will recall the huge uproar about the provincial government’s surprise decision a couple years ago to revoke Peter Lougheed’s long-standing Alberta Coal Policy and open up the foothills and mountains to coal strip mining.
The biggest concern most people had was water, because the Eastern Slopes – where the coal is – are the source of all the water we use.
Coal strip mines take a lot of water out of the system before it even reaches the rest of us. The rubble releases selenium and other contaminants that ends up in our livestock watering pens, our drinking water and our irrigated crops.
And by crushing up the landscape, those mines ruin the groundwater systems that, when left intact, store and slowly release the water our rivers — and families — depend on.
Water is far more important to southern Alberta than coal could ever be.
When, after an exhaustive public inquiry, the government finally backed down on its plan to sacrifice our water security for coal, there was a huge collective sigh of relief. But many of us were worried too, because it was a fragile win. Foreign coal companies had already wreaked widespread damage to the mountains exploring the new leases the government had issued. Runoff from those coal roads now sends mud and silt to the rivers and into the Oldman reservoir, shortening its useful life expectancy.
And the restored coal policy wasn’t legislated. It was brought in by a ministerial order, reversible at the stroke of a pen.
That appears to be exactly what the new UCP leader Danielle Smith has promised the small minority of coal boosters in the Crowsnest Pass.
A triumphant-sounding editorial in the Crowsnest Pass Herald referred to Ms. Smith’s promise to open up the coal question all over again by way of a referendum. On the face of it, that sounds like democracy.
In fact, however, it’s simply another attempt to game the system. The majority of concerned Albertans have already said no to coal and selenium, and yes to water. The conversation should be over. So the real referendum on our future water security will not be whatever cleverly-worded question is put to voters next spring. It will be the election itself.
The Alberta NDP have twice tabled legislation to protect our water supply from polluting coal mines.
The Eastern Slopes Protection Act was defeated both times by the UCP. Rachel Notley has promised that if we elect an NDP government, it will become law. And as we saw during her four years in government, she keeps promises. In southern Alberta we know that water is life. We’re also painfully aware of what happens when water runs short, and of how vulnerable our agri-foods industry is. The last thing we need is toxic runoff in our water supply and more chaotic river flows, especially given the increased risk of major droughts in future. The world has lots of coal, but we only have one source area for our most valuable resource, water. That’s the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, where the coal is.
We’re going to have a referendum on coal and water very soon. It’s called an election. The UCP fooled us once on coal, and they appear to be at it again. A vote for the Alberta NDP is a vote for intact mountains and legislated protection of our water from coal strip mines. If water matters, we need to choose wisely.
Kevin Van Tighem is the author of several books on Alberta conservation and wildlife who spent his career working in landscape ecology roles in Canada’s western national parks, including seven years in Waterton. He was Superintendent of Banff when he retired a decade ago.