Creating a picture of Alberta’s water future

Alberta relies on water like no other province in the country.

Stefanie Kletke

Troy Media

Alberta relies on water like no other province in the country. In fact, Alberta’s water use accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s entire use, and our agricultural products – which account for 60 to 70 per cent of Alberta’s water use – make up one-third of the country’s agricultural exports. Fully half of the province’s gross domestic product (GDP) is predicated on water availability. To minimize the risk attached to such water dependency, important work is quietly underway to help Alberta plan for future uncertainties.

Tucked away in a small cubicle in the University of Alberta (UofA) Biological Sciences building, down a hallway guarded by a tank of exotic fish, is an unassuming supercomputer running a program called SWAT (Soil & Water Assessment Tool). Protected by its handwritten “Please do not turn off” sign, the supercomputer is creating hundreds of millions of simulations of Alberta’s river basins, attempting to create a computer model that mirrors exactly where and how much water we have had in the past 30 years, before moving on to predict our water future. These simulations require constant tweaking by the UofA Water Initiative’s Dr. Monireh Faramarzi, amounting to a year-long process and the first step in a three-year, $1-million project begun in January of this year.

The project, entitled Predicting Alberta’s Water Future (PAWF), is supported by Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions (AI-EES), and is a continuation of a previous AI-EES three-year project entitled Dynamics of Alberta’s Water Resources. Dr. Faramarzi is lead investigator and the UofA’s Dr. Greg Goss is project leader of PAWF’s multidisciplinary team, comprised of climate change and SWAT model experts from around the world. The team’s work will help Albertans to effectively manage their most precious resource by providing reliable predictions of both the supply and demand over the next 50 years. It does so by taking into account not only the normal regional differences and seasonal fluctuation of our water resources, but also the ever-looming forces of climate change and global warming.

But first, the team must patiently wait for the supercomputer to compute and visualize vast amounts of data that address not only Alberta’s past water levels and weather reports, but also anything else that may have affected either of those things, such as glacier melt, the type of soil close to a river, or when and how much water was used for crop irrigation. Once the resulting simulations can make “predictions” for the past that match the historical data, the computer model can be trusted to reliably predict for the future.

Then, the PAWF team will be able to use the computer model to see just how much water will both be available and used in the next 50 years. This picture of Alberta’s water future will be further enhanced by combining it with the team’s findings on the expected future water demand in Alberta’s five major sectors, being energy, environment, industry, municipal and agriculture.

By weaving together these seemingly separate but rather interconnected pieces of the puzzle, the PAWF team will be able to identify regions and sectors in Alberta that are most at risk in their water needs, based on any mismatches between the predictions on water supply and the expected water demand according to the five major sectors’ plans.

The team hopes to translate those results into tools such as an interactive online map that will both inform and help the province produce a set of scientifically-based water management options for Alberta to maintain a safe and secure drinking water supply, healthy aquatic ecosystems, and reliable quality water supplies for a sustainable economy – regardless of whether the province is in a water surplus or scarcity. In other words, PAWF’s predictive models will help Alberta’s water resource managers, policy makers and the public prepare for any situation that may come our way.

Regions of Alberta have already experienced times of water scarcity. As the province, country and world plan for increased pressure on our water resources as a result of population growth, economic development and climate change, such tools are needed now.

Stefanie Kletke is a research assistant at the University of Alberta Water Initiative.