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How the Girl Guides came to the rescue when an Alberta town needed water

Calgary’s bedroom communities like Cochrane and Okotoks have been seeking solutions to their water challenges over the past several years. Those are drawn into greater focus given recent urgent discussion over water infrastructure and supply management in the Calgary region.

Calgary bedroom communities have been seeking to grow, but water isn’t unlimited

An aerial shot of a town is shown.

On the south bank of the Bow River sits Camp Jubilee, an 34-hectare campground operated by the Girl Guides of Canada.

It's an unassuming riverside camp, flanked on its south by a curving highway that runs into the town of Cochrane, Alta.

It's also the centre of a recent big-money deal that will help, in part, to solve long-standing water issues in the town of around 32,000 residents. The trade? The camp's 1977 water licence, tied to a lagoon and canoeing channel on the property, in exchange for water servicing from the town.

To understand why the Girl Guides were sitting on such a valuable allocation of water, one must look back to the 1970s. At that time, a box of Guides cookies sold for 50 cents and Alberta's water landscape looked a lot different.

It wasn't so difficult to get a water licence in southern Alberta in the 1970s. The Guides, seeking a 3,600 acre-feet per year licence, would have simply applied, stated their intended use for the water, and received it.

But over the decades, populations in Alberta's semi-arid south grew. The rules changed.

Worries grew around an overtaxed supply. Most of the water in Alberta's south came under new restrictions in the form of no new applications for water licences being accepted. Those restrictions created a water market, where water rights are bought and sold.

Suddenly, licences had new value. And as the years went on, officials in communities like Cochrane were facing a big problem.

"We began to realize that our water licence, the allocation we had, was going to be stressed by the amount of folks that we had joining our community," said Mike Derricott, chief administrative officer for Cochrane.

Calgary's bedroom communities like Cochrane and Okotoks have been seeking solutions to their water challenges over the past several years. Those have been exacerbated by Alberta's recent population surge.

Solutions may have been found to Cochrane and Okotoks' immediate challenges. But larger pressures still loom.

Albertans may be thinking more about the future of the province's water supply and infrastructure given recurrent drought conditions and a recent major water main break in Calgary. The bedroom community of Airdrie, dependent on Calgary's water distribution system, was directly affected by that break.

It illustrates the importance of planning supply and distribution properly, said Tricia Stadnyk, a professor and Canada Research Chair in hydrologic modelling with the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering.

"Growth depends on water. Either way you cut it," she said.

"Typically, water is a last piece of the puzzle for development, but it should be — needs to be, in Alberta — the first."

The guiding way

Given the competition, Cochrane was staring down some big price tags as it looked to secure water for a 25-year period. Costs ranged from $50- to $60-million, Derricott said.

Conscious of being frugal with taxpayer money, the town looked to alternatives and zeroed in on Camp Jubilee.

Cochrane made a unique proposal to Alberta Environment: the town would combine consumptive and non-consumptive water licences, acquiring the latter from the Girl Guides.

Consumptive licences refers to water use that reduces the overall water available for other uses, while non-consumptive licences refers to use that returns water to the source down the line — for instance, through treatment plants.

Through combining the licences, the town was able to reduce the $50- to $60-million cost to around $20- to $30-million, according to Derricott. Not all of that will go to the Girl Guides because the town still needs to turn to the market for consumptive licences, he said.

According to a spokesperson with the Town of Cochrane, there was no direct payment to the Girl Guides. Instead, as a part of a negotiated agreement, the town will provide water servicing to Camp Jubilee — $550,000 to support design, and more than $7 million for construction as part of 2025 budget deliberations.

WATCH | Cochrane CAO Mike Derricott outlines the town's unique water licence proposal:

Cochrane CAO outlines unique proposal town made to Alberta Environment

18 hours ago

Duration 2:09

Cochrane CAO Mike Derricott outlined how the town worked with Alberta Environment to transfer the Girl Guides of Canada water licence from Camp Jubilee to the town.

A spokesperson with the Girl Guides declined an interview request but provided a statement.

"Girl Guides of Canada is pleased to transfer the Camp Jubilee water licence to the Town of Cochrane. This agreement will benefit the Town of Cochrane as well as Camp Jubilee. A partnership like this is in keeping with the Guiding Law, which challenges us to use our resources wisely, among other principles," the statement reads.

The town said its strategy won't require existing taxpayers to fund the acquisition of the water licence. Instead, every new water meter that is connected in Cochrane will pay a water connection fee, and that will fund the acquisition of the licences.

'Dozer rights'

Davin MacIntosh, founder of Water Transfer Alberta, said the Girl Guides were silent on their water licence for years before eventually realizing its value.

"It was a win-win," he said.

But that does point to what could be one of the downsides of starting a water market, and putting a value on something that previously had no value.

"You tend to wake up old licences, rights that may have not really ever been used again had there been no value in them. We call them sleeper rights, or dozer rights," he said.

"You may lead to more efficiency of use, but you'll also end up with more intensity of use … you end up using more water, in the whole system, per licence than before you had an economic value attached to it."

Cochrane now has confidence it's made a significant step in its quest to secure long-term water security.

But to Derricott, the process was indicative of the challenges that Alberta's south will continue to face as populations continue to grow.

Water is expensive, and it will only grow more expensive as time goes on, he said.

"It is one of the things that I think we have communicated back to the province, as they have been operating the Alberta is Calling campaign … there are very real cost pressures that come along with that," he said.

"Where these people ultimately are going to live and work and access water is going to be a question."

A challenge in the south

Standing along the Sheep River, the water source for the town of Okotoks, Alta., Mayor Tanya Thorn says the community is still in the midst of managing growth.

Okotoks has taken a smaller share of the growth in the Calgary region recently, partly due to water challenges in the community. But long-term, the community wants to take more.

"Obviously, water is key to being able to take on any growth," Thorn said, adding there's no current risk of anyone in the community going without water.

WATCH | Okotoks mayor outlines how community is responding to growth:

Okotoks mayor outlines how community is responding to growth

19 hours ago

Duration 0:33

Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn describes the community’s long-term plan to manage growth, particularly when it comes to water management.

Today, Okotoks is anticipated to grow to 70,000 to 90,000 people by 2080. But for a time, the community had a growth cap in place, limiting its population to 35,000 due to concerns over its water supply. That cap was lifted in 2012.

MacIntosh, who has worked on many water transfers in the Bow River basin, has facilitated deals for the community in the past.

While in theory it's possible to transfer licences to the Sheep River, it's become more difficult in practice.

"There wasn't any water left in that river to divert in low periods. It doesn't even exist," MacIntosh said. "[It was] clear that Okotoks's growth is just going to push beyond what that river could ever handle."

Because of that, the town sought other solutions. It's in the process of building a pipeline from the Bow River all the way to Okotoks — about 10 kilometres away — so the town can purchase licences on the Bow. The town received $16 million in grant funding from the province for that project, which is expected to be operational in 2026.

Some involved in construction projects in the community are counting on that timeline.

"Development going forward, if that isn't in place, will not be able to continue as it has. It will be stopped because there's just no water in place," said Scott Lamont, vice-president of Lamont Land.

Developers in Okotoks must purchase water licences for their developments. It's a way to ensure that new development is paying for its water usage, Lamont said, but ultimately, those costs get passed on to the homeowner.

"That's always a bit of a concern for us because obviously one of our goals and the goals of many municipalities is affordable housing right now," Lamont said.

When push comes to shove, Okotoks is planning for its water needs 10 years out, MacIntosh said.

"By the time all underground services in a community are installed, houses are built, roads are built, it's usually a few years," he said.

"In the end, Okotoks had a little bit more time to deal with this than they might have first worried they had. In a way, the system's worked to create limits."

The long-term picture

Cochrane and Okotoks may be close to securing solutions to manage their growth in the near-term.

But bigger questions about the future of water in Alberta remain.

Robert Sandford, who is with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, says communities seeking to grow face certain challenges. Those are exacerbated by climate change-induced water scarcity.

"What's most important … is that you have to be aware when you are pushing the limits of how much water you have available to you and are using, that the sources of water supply do not decline," he said.

"We've seen it widely in the American west and southwest, and we've seen it widely elsewhere in the world. You make arrangements that appear to guarantee water supply. But in a changing climate, that water supply is no longer assured."

WATCH | Managing water supply in a changing climate:

Managing water supply in a changing climate

19 hours ago

Duration 0:49

Robert Sandford with the United Nations University for Water, Environment and Health outlines his concerns around continued growth when Alberta’s water supply finds itself under increasing pressure.

One of the reasons why Calgary's surrounding communities have been able to get water is due to the fact that Calgary has a very large water licence that hasn't been fully utilized.

But in a deep and persistent drought, and in the face of unlimited growth, there will be tension in regards to how much water is actually available to meet all of the needs of the surrounding region, Sandford said.

"Sooner or later, we're going to see us reach that limitation," he said.

What's not being discussed in Alberta, in Sandford's view, is what the science says about warming on the Canadian prairies.

Projected warming could cause a great deal of evaporation and transpiration, and could result in very persistent droughts over decades. It will likely also cause very powerful rainstorms over a brief period of time that threaten flooding, punctuated by long periods of drought.

"Managing for that is different than managing for the circumstances that we have now," he said.

"At some point in our near future, we're going to have to recognize that we can only grow to the extent that we can manage what we need to, in terms of having a sustainable society."


Joel is a reporter/editor with CBC Calgary. In fall 2021, he spent time with CBC's bureau in Lethbridge. He was previously the editor of the Airdrie City View and Rocky View Weekly newspapers. He hails from Swift Current, Sask. Reach him by email at joel.dryden@cbc.ca

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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