1. When and where does the Surface Water Allocation Directive apply?

This Directive provides a provincially consistent and predictable approach for cumulative allocation of water for all sectors, where planning has not established specific water management objectives for the allocation of water. The Directive does not affect existing water licences which do not expire.  The Directive applies to new applications and temporary diversion licences (TDLs).  The Directive may also be applied to existing term licences at time of renewal but this will depend on conditions specific to the licence.

The legislative basis for the Directive is the Water Act, however this does not replace or override requirements specified in other guidelines, directives, regulations, policies or legislation. For example, existing and future water management plans, transboundary agreements, and fisheries management objectives take precedence over The Directive. The Directive is applicable when the following are absent:

  • A ministerial Order or decision of the Lieutenant Governor in Council;
  • A water management plan or water conservation objective (Water Act);
  • A land-use framework regional plan or environmental management framework (Alberta Land Stewardship Act).

2. When will the Directive come into effect?

While some limited piloting of concepts within the Directive has already occurred by regulators, the Directive will be reviewed following public engagement, before seeking approval to finalize.

3. What are the principles of the Directive?

Where there is an absence of specific information for understanding ecological needs, this Directive is based on a fundamental ecological principle of maintaining natural hydrologic variability as a proxy for ecosystem health and integrity. Maintaining the natural variability in river flow and lake levels is necessary for ecosystem protection of aquatic resources. In addition to maintaining natural hydrologic variability, this Directive incorporates the following principles:

  • a cumulative water allocation management approach;
  • assessment of availability of water and sustainability of allocations at a water body and watershed scale;
  • minimize impacts to downstream aquatic ecosystems;
  • provide limits for rates of diversion from rivers/streams to maintain aquatic habitat;
  • provide limits for rates of diversion from lakes/wetlands to maintain long-term hydrologic water balance and littoral zone habitat;
  • minimize changes to winter dissolved oxygen in lakes/wetlands to maintain overwintering aquatic habitat; and
  • provide protection of critical wildlife breeding habitat.

4. How is the Directive applied?

The Directive is a desktop approach which requires an initial watershed assessment to determine the ability of the watershed to support the proposed allocation. If the application is for a river or stream, there is a determination on whether the proposed volume and rate is less than a percentage of the naturalized flow (Sec 2.1.3), including the existing cumulative allocation from the waterbody. If the application is for a lake, there is a determination of whether the proposed volume and rate is less than both a total annual allocation limit and seasonal rate limit (Sec 2.1.4), including the existing cumulative allocation from the waterbody. Lakes with sensitive wildlife species may also have timing restrictions. Low volume applications that meet provided low risk criteria (Sec 2.1.2) may not be subject to the analysis required in the Directive.

5. Does this Directive apply to all water allocation applications?

The Directive applies to all sectors. However, there are screening criteria (Sec 2.1.2) to identify lower risk applications which may not require further detailed analysis under this Directive. This criteria does not indicate automatic approval, but is intended to streamline the approval process. All allocations, including low risk, will be considered when determining the cumulative allocation for future water applications.

6. How does this Directive relate to the Alberta desktop method?

The Surface Water Allocation Directive is grounded on the principles of the Desktop Method for Establishing Environmental Flows in Alberta Rivers and Streams (Locke and Paul 2011), which is a hydrology-based tool commonly referred to as the Alberta desktop method.

The desktop recommendation was used by Directors, at their discretion, as an accepted method in licensing decisions. The Directive formalizes advice to Directors, as policy, for licensing decisions.

While this Directive is informed by the science of the Alberta desktop method with regards to rivers and streams, this Directive also provides guidance to lakes and wetlands and uses a cumulative watershed approach for water allocations.

While the intent of the Alberta desktop method is to provide full aquatic ecosystem protection from water withdrawals, this Directive provides more flexible water allocation guidelines for larger waterbodies at low flows to incorporate the Water for Life strategy objective of reliable water supplies for a sustainable economy.

While the Alberta desktop method provided full protection for all stream sizes, this Directive provides increased protection of smaller streams as the impact from water withdrawals are proportionally greater in small systems, while providing increased water availability from the largest systems as they are more resilient during low flow periods.

7. Does the Directive change the application process?

No, this Directive does not change the application process for water allocations. This Directive sets out consistent criteria and expectations for licence applications and therefore reflects an update to internal Environment and Parks and Alberta Energy Regulator water allocation guidance, not a shift in policy.

8. What happens if the Directive criteria indicate that water is not available for allocation?

If the Directive criteria indicates that water is not available for a proposed water allocation application, this suggests that the risk of diversion may be too high regarding environmental impact or water supply to existing users. Further assessment could identify a change of timing, alternative water sources, or potential regulatory mechanisms to share or transfer water.

When the Directive criteria indicates that water is not available, this should be considered a strong signal that water/watershed management planning should be initiated.