June 27, 2024

Yes, it’s raining but now is not the time to stop talking about the drought

By Vicki Lightbown, Director for the Water Innovation Program, Alberta Innovates

Climate change is going to be felt most acutely through water: how much we get, where we get it and when.

This year, in Alberta, those effects are being felt through another year of drought. Even with the more frequent rainfall we have experienced the last few weeks, the intensity will be decreased, but Alberta will still experience drought.

Alberta would need constant rain from now until the end of the summer to build back water reserves and pull itself out of that drought—that doesn’t mean the water in our reservoirs; it means our rivers, lakes, streams and underground aquifers.

We have this information and understanding of our natural environment because of the massive investments in research made by the province’s vast network of water researchers, water managers and technology developers. It’s an investment we must continue so we can make the best water management decisions possible now and into the future.

Listen to Vicki Lightbown, Director for the Water Innovation Program, Alberta Innovates, on AlbertaBETTER

Research like this allows us to know where our water is in the moment and helps inform the policies we need to manage our water in the future. It informs the technologies that are developed by and for industries and municipalities to use water more effectively. Most importantly, it allows us to understand what we don’t yet know, so we can invest in more research to continue this cycle of innovation.

Investments in this research mean the infrastructure now in place is allowing us to respond even more effectively to this drought than we did in 2001.

We now have a better understanding of our natural water resources, and models that can help us understand how water—or a lack of it—in one part of the province will affect other parts. As a result, we can better utilize our dams and reservoirs to not just hold water but to manage it in times of drought and flood.

We have also invested in establishing knowledge and best practices around storm and wastewater reuse that have influenced new policies that allow that water to be treated and reused for, among other things, irrigating community sports fields, putting less pleasure on our municipal water supplies—something Calgary has experience with given their catastrophic water main break recently.

We have invested in developing new technologies to reduce the amount of water industries need to use for their operations. For example, farmers are now able to use sensors to help them understand where water is needed, rather than applying the same amount of water to the whole field, saving water and improving the quality of crops.

Those are just some of the solutions we have developed to date that are helping us as a province manage our water better. But the thing about an innovation cycle is that it must continue—especially to respond to something as ever changing as climate.

We are in a drought now, but we know that many droughts also include floods. Last year, the Town of Peers in Yellowhead County was evacuated twice over the summer; first for wildfires caused by severe drought. The second, for extreme flooding brought on by torrential rain and soil left too dry to properly absorb the deluge.

Having good water management infrastructure means having the ability to respond to all extremes—even when they occur at the same time. So, what does that mean when it comes to innovation?

Well, innovation is only effective when it is adopted. We need policymakers at all levels, industry, and the public to work together to continue to adopt critical solutions as they emerge, while continuing to invest in and support new research and knowledge sharing.

Alberta’s innovation cycle is strong; allowing us to successfully innovate and adopt new technologies and ways of working that build resilience in the face of crises. As we face yet another challenging wildfire and drought season, let’s continue to invest in our future by investing in innovative water management. Nothing else could be more important as water is to our lives.

Vicki Lightbown is the Director for the Water Innovation Program at Alberta Innovates and a contributor to the Business Council of Alberta. This column is part of a discussion paper series by the Council called Missions and Moonshots, which explores how Alberta can reach its full potential in three key areas of the economy: food, health, and energy. View all other papers here.

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