How do surface water quality management frameworks protect our water?

Over the past 20 years, Alberta has experienced tremendous growth. Statistics show that not only has our population increased  from around 3.1 million in 2002 to more than 4.4 million in 2021,  Alberta’s economy has also grown significantly. But positive opportunities also come with challenges, specifically, an increased pressure and need to access a valuable and limited resource—water.

So, how do we make sure clean, high quality water is available to promote healthy communities and a strong economy?  That’s where surface water quality management frameworks come into place.

These frameworks establish clear regional objectives for water quality. These objectives have to strike the right balance and are reached in collaboration with stakeholders, Indigenous communities, municipalities and the public. Frameworks are developed for our rivers to ensure these resources can support water needs for the community, aquatic habitat and industrial use in the region into the future.

In Alberta, there are two comprehensive regional surface water quality management frameworks. One is for the South Saskatchewan region and the other is for the lower Athabasca region. Each framework describes a long-term vision, or regional objective, and collects water quality information based on the needs and resources in the area. The frameworks inform government decisions to respond to changes in water quality as a result of human activities in the watershed.

In southern Alberta, the South Saskatchewan region surface water quality management framework includes the Bow, South Saskatchewan, Oldman and Milk rivers. This area, known for its hot, dry climate, experiences a wide range of land uses and every drop of water is in high demand. In northeastern Alberta, an area with a heavy concentration of industrial activity, the framework helps effectively manage water quality.

Bow Watershed, South Saskatchewan Region

Regular water monitoring, evaluation and reporting on ambient surface water quality conditions ensure the objectives of the framework are being met. Ongoing monitoring of key water quality indicators such as nutrients, metals, sediment, bacteria and major ions ensure stressors affecting water quality are closely monitored.

If one or more of the 20+ water quality indicators are triggered, Alberta Environment and Parks will get the early warning signal to act. Based on stringent water quality guidelines, the frameworks also include more specific water quality limits to make sure water is suitable for aquatic life, recreation, irrigation, livestock watering and source water for household use.

If an exceedance of a trigger or limit is found, actions are taken. Depending on the cause and effect, responses can vary in severity. It may mean a non-regulatory approach is developed, such as education and awareness initiatives, or the use of strong regulatory tools. Depending on the situation, these responses are acted upon in collaboration with industry, communities and stakeholders. Tools include changes to regulations or mandatory new approval conditions under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Whichever the response, the goal is always to protect the environment and support continuous improvement.

Surface water quality management frameworks have proven to be very valuable tools for monitoring and managing long-term, cumulative changes in water quality since being put in place in the lower Athabasca region in 2012 and the South Saskatchewan region in 2014.

Athabasca River, Lower Athabasca Region

Albertans place a high value on our province’s water resources and want to ensure our water quality is protected. With water resources in other areas of the province under similar pressure, the use of surface water quality management frameworks is a proven way to help manage water quality across a region.

Alberta will continue to grow, and surface water management frameworks will help us keep pace and address the water needs for communities and industry opportunities.