Integrated water resource management (IWRM) continues to be a well-founded aspiration to address the often competing and multiple demands for finite water supplies. Ongoing population growth, economic development and global change are increasingly adding to the complexity of water management decision making. It is becoming apparent that finding new mechanisms to move beyond IWRM are required in order to assure that the achievement of social, economic and environmental water requirements are sustainable and have capacity to rapidly adapt to changing local and regional conditions.
In southern Alberta, Canada, within the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB), a multi-year project has been underway to engage stakeholders and build the relationships, tools and mechanisms to support not just an IWRM approach, but to develop the processes for actual integrated and collaborative operational decision making. This initiative provides a rare opportunity to evaluate the role of various stakeholders, the identification of key and critical performance measures, the development of analytical tools and the building of operational and institutional relationships and capacity that enable collaborative decision-making.
The SSRB itself offers a unique landscape including mountain regions, hydroelectric facilities, large urban centres, significant industrial development, almost 70% of Canada's irrigated agriculture as well as important cultural and environmental resources. Finding new ways to improve and sustain environmental objectives within the framework of existing water allocation legislation and policies was a key driver in considering basin-wide decision-making and integration of water management facilities. This initiative differentiates itself in the manner in which the project was designed to focus on and be driven by the needs of the various stakeholders.
Key stakeholders were identified and engaged early in the process to obtain their collaboration and cooperation and to develop a program that would truly meet their needs. Stakeholders included consumptive and non-consumptive water users, various government organizations, and selected NGOs. Individuals were selected on the basis of their experience as well as ability to inform and carry forward decisions. All perspectives on water use were considered valid by the participating stakeholders. Participants in the project agreed to a set of principles and terms of reference to guide the project.
Stakeholders were directly involved in the development of the performance measures that would be needed to evaluate whether or not alternative operating policies and practices would meet individual stakeholder needs while also improving and sustaining environmental performance throughout the basin and sub-basins. Participants were engaged around identifying, supplying and validating the data and information required to support their self-developed performance measures.
Performance measures and data were used for the collaborative development of model(s) to assist in identifying new opportunities to manage water at the basin and sub-basin levels. Model development and testing was completed in direct participation with the project stakeholders and model scenarios were developed by the participants in the project. A key feature of the initiative was that the modelling, development of scenarios and evaluation of success/failure in meeting performance measures was done in the open. It soon became apparent that the potential benefits of making operational decisions about the management of facilities had a strong potential to increase security of water for various stakeholders uses, while providing reach specific improvements to environmental performance. A wide range of scenarios was simulated and a suite of preferred new operating policies and practices were developed.
To build capacity for future change; whether climate driven, population or economic driven, participants participated in live virtual world simulations. These simulations used the data and models prepared, but in a manner where the participants did not know the year being simulated, but where they were able to make decisions about water diversions, use, water left in the river for environmental purposes and to compare those time-step by time-step decisions against current operations as well as the preferred new operating policies. These activities provided clarity for determining the extent of improvements that could be made by taking a basin-wide, system-wide approach to integrated water management decision-making.
The initiative also implemented an intentional look at building capacity to deal with climate variability and change by developing basin and sub-basin approaches to the impacts of climate on water supply timing and availability. In addition, modelling to begin the integration of landscape change on water supply availability was implemented. Work in three sub-basins, the Bow River, Oldman River and Red Deer River sub-basins into the whole of the SSRB allows the ability to test new inter and intra basin water management policies and practices.
A number of barriers to full scale implementation of new approaches have been identified. In many instances, for water users to effect the changes they have helped identify and are prepared to implement require some level of government action and this enabling slows the process of full implementation. Over time, more water interests also self-identify and as a result additional work is required to bring them up-to-speed and overcome concerns.
By adopting an implementation approach from the outset, it is possible to change the types of conversations and participation between stakeholders in a way that will allow for the identification and implementation of creative and adaptable solutions to present and future water management challenges.