Alberta Water and the Public Trust Doctrine

A generation ago, or less, the commodification of water was not something that entered the fevered minds of even the more radical conspiracy theorists or the most rabid of activists. Well, big changes percolating.

Last night, (by the by, yesterday was World Water Day) attending the "Public Trust Doctrine and the Future of Water in Alberta" at the U of A, we were schooled by Michigan-based attorney and public trust doctrine advocate Jim Olson and Mr. Donahue, an assistant of water expert Dr. David Schindler.

Water, says Big Money, is, well, big money. And there is much jockeying by mega-corporations to move us, drip by drip, toward water markets.

Oh, but not here in Alberta surly. Well, as it happens, "Since 2008 the Alberta government has been reviewing the provincial water allocation system, with indications that it intends to introduce a province-wide, largely deregulated water market when it updates the 1999 Water Act. Despite widespread concerns about leaving decisions about who will be able to access water up to the open market, the provincial government has over the past two years almost completely ignored non-market alternatives."

Enter the "Public Trust Doctrine": "Many jurisdictions around the world — from India to Vermont, Hawaii to South Africa — are taking an alternate path in water management, basing their water allocation systems on a concept called the public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine focuses on the protection of ecological values and on ensuring water for future generations by striking a balance between the public interest and private use of our collective water resources."


(Fast-melting Athabasca glacier – picture by Ben  W. Bell)

Last night we were informed (the data is overwhelming) that it is a critical time for water in Alberta. Rivers are over-allocated throughout the province. Certainly, there are grave concerns about the impact of tarsands operations on water quality and quantity in the north. Add in the predictions of climate change, accelerated glacial retreat, a dropping water table, increased population, and so on, and we, here in ample-Alberta, are moving towards a water crisis.

Here are a few organizations that are advocating for a home grown public trust doctrine regarding water management: Our Water is Not For Sale network, Parkland Institute, Public Interest Alberta, and Council of Canadians Edmonton Chapter.

If we act now, a generation from now, the fevered minds might be on other issues.


  1. Thanks for the alert Steve. Let me know when the march is; if we don’t oppose this, we’ll soon be Bolivia’s cousins with Bechtel’s dirty money in our tumblers.

  2. There are of course many “mega-corporations” providing many good things for many people and doing so ethically. Further, it is possible for governments to behave unethically around this as well. It’s going to be “big money” whether being invested by publicly owned corporations or by governments. I think you’re leading with your left here, Steve…

  3. I should just point out that Dr. Donahue is not really an assistant to Dr. Schindler, but a colleague. Dr. Donahue has a Ph.D in ecology as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Law and therefore is in a perfect position to understand and explain the current situation in Alberta. He certainly looks young but I checked out some of his research and he has published dozens of papers on his own and with Dr. Schindler! I’m looking forward to hearing more from him in the future!

  4. As for mega-corporation and big money…. well yes, it is true that they can and do perform needed services and provide good things for people. However it is a matter of balancing those good things with their negative impacts in terms of the environment and human rights. And, I’m generalizing of course, but it seems that larger corporations have less regulation, are more able to lobby the government to get what they want and are less likely to be held fully accountable. The larger companies come to provide such a big chunk of services that they sometimes gain a position of unchecked power. I guess I am primarily thinking of large energy companies. For example Syncrude and Suncor have already cost billions of dollars in damage to Alberta ecosystems but there is no true commitment from them to invest in cleanup or restoration. There is a lot of talk, but only a tiny fraction of the needed money has been put down to guarantee that the public won’t be left footing the cleanup bill when the sands dry up. And those are just the costs that we can calculate right now. It is not factoring in health effects or effects on quality and quantity of water or costs on food production or property, viable land that is now contaminated with chemicals that stick around for centuries and so forth. It is not until something goes wrong, an oil spill, a containment leak, that large energy companies come under scrutiny, but even then the first concern from the government is “keeping the company viable” especially if it is an energy company. The fact is that we have competitive options in renewable energy but they cannot become competitive unless there is an initial investment and our government stops heavily subsidizing dirty oil.

  5. And here is a short blurb from this morning’s Democracy Now: “The ongoing crisis in Japan comes as a new federal report is calling into question the self-regulatory practices of nuclear plants in the United States. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspector general, over a quarter of U.S. nuclear power plants have failed to properly report equipment defects that could threaten the safety of their reactors. At least 28 percent of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants appeared unaware of rules requiring their disclosure of any safety flaws, even if no actual lapses occur. Experts say the lack of disclosures could make it more difficult for nuclear operators to uncover flaws in the equipment they have in common with other facilities.”

    This points out the grave problem of self-regulation. Especially when there are profits to be gained by cutting corners. That is what happened with the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and with Chevron in Ecuador and with the nuclear reactors that are so imperilled right now in Japan.

  6. Teryl, Thank you for the clarification regarding Dr. Donahue. And thank you for expertly addressing Sam’s note. And finally, thanks for the Democracy Now link and the reactor story. More than concerning.

  7. Once again Teryl shows me up with her superior research support. It seems to me that the biggest challenge for all societies is the control of human greed. This goes not only for big corporations and big government but also for small ones, as well as for the likes of us who only want enough to eat and drink. The solution for this, though, isn’t preventing commodification of needed substances but a system of checks and balances that keeps human greed in check, that is transparent enough so that we can see when somebody’s cheating – before the disasters happen – and for this we need both honest corporations and honest governments. That said, it’s not apparent to me, philosophically, why the commodification of water would be a bad thing. Might it not in fact lead to the kind of research on water that could challenge the results of the oilsands companies and that could also ensure the delivery of safe water to thirsty people. Overall, large corporations have proven to be a very efficient way of delivering many good things to many people. There are of course the bad apples – eventually they get found out, and even whole industries disappear – case in point, the tobacco industry.

  8. If you are interested in learning more or understanding the current world water crisis as well as the two sides to the private vs public debate about water there are a number of resources you can check out:


    I would especially encourage you to check out the “Our water is not for sale” open letter as it succinctly states some of the major concerns. It is possible that some privatization of water on a small, local scale would actually increase efficiency, but on a larger provincial or federal level it is a potentially very dangerous thing. If you click on the very top link you will see a few disaster stories from Australia and Chile, who decided to privatize water on a large scale.

  9. Thanks, Teryl – I read the letter you suggested and found it to be quite sobering. I was particularly disturbed at the suggestion that government and business had colluded to create a market by colluding to limit supply. This in my mind is clearly unethical and immoral. This I think requires that we establish and maintain a clear arms-length relationship between government and enterprise, such as regulating lobbyists, eliminating the practice of corporate donations to political parties, such as we have done in Canada. This of course requires eternal vigilance, so that the rules are kept and enforced. But it still leave, I think the question about how water should be supplied to those who need it. All of us who live in cities pay for our water. The philosophical question hinges on how the capital that will be used to supply the water will be owned. In this respect we need a healthy distrust of both governments and corporations. My belief though is, if the rules of fairness can be established and enforced, I would rather that government have the rule-making and enforcing role, and corporations to the providing and supplying. The other question to consider her of course is the public trust doctrine. And I need to do some more thinking about that.

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