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Low water levels at Pine Coulee Reservoir raising concern with water managers

LAWRENCE GLEASON, GAZETTE CONTRIBUTOR

Low water levels in Pine Coulee reservoir could result in 44 producers having their water licences cancelled.
“The water level is at 67 per cent, which is lower than we’d like to be at this time of year,” said Kathleen Murphy, the approvals manager for the South Saskatchewan Region of Alberta Environment and Parks. “If the water reaches elevation 1,044 those water licences that are tied to the reservoir may be cut off. We may be able to get through this year but we are worried about next year.”
There are 44 water licences held by producers that are tied to water levels in the reservoir. That is out of a total of over 100 water licences held by producers.
Three experts from Alberta Environment and Parks addressed MD of Willow Creek councillors at their July 10 meeting.
With Murphy were Scott Gerber, the team lead on the Oldman River dam, Lethbridge Northern headworks, and water approval engineer Jason Cayford.
Water levels are so low two senior staff with the Town of Claresholm sat in the gallery to listen to the presentation of the three provincial water experts. Those included chief administrative officer Marian Carlson and utilities services manager Brad Burns.
The most important issue was Alberta Environment and Parks needs to know from producers how much water is being drawn off the Pine Coulee reservoir, for how long and when and the rate, or how fast.
A letter was sent 44 producers at the end of May and beginning of June, with a telephone number to call in that information every time.
Only 10 of 44 producers have responded.
Murphy said that is a concern.
That information is more important now that the water level is a concern as Gerber needs to calculate the draw from the reservoir to help producers as long as he can.
The Pine Coulee reservoir was built in 1998 and it is only in the last three years that it has been used for irrigation to this extent, Gerber said.
“Before the last three years there has been enough flow in Willow Creek that diverting from the reservoir hasn’t been necessary,” Gerber said.
The Pine Coulee reservoir supplies water to both the Town of Claresholm and the Town of Granum.
A line runs to Claresholm where the water is treated, and then is pumped to Granum.
On the way to Granum the Leavings Water Co-op has for years wanted to hook onto the line to about 50 rural residents, and there is an application in to Alberta Environment and Parks, but there hasn’t been money for the hook-up although the plans have been engineered and there are places on the line to connect.
“That is the regional water line,” Murphy said. “That is the intake we are talking about.”
From September 2018 to March 2019 the water level in the Pine Coulee reservoir was just below the 1,048 elevation level.
That has risen just below 1,050. An elevation level of 1,044 is required to allow irrigation for water licence holders whose water licences are tied to that level.
“When the water level reaches that level there is not enough water for irrigation purposes,” Murphy said. “If we reach that level the water licences that are tied to that elevation, 1,044, will be cut off.”
Murphy said the critical water level for Claresholm and Granum is only “a couple of metres below that point.”
That level will be a serious warning alarm for residents of Claresholm and Granum. If there isn’t enough rainfall or flow from Willow Creek into the Pine Coulee reservoir critical low water levels could be reached this year.
“That means we could go the winter at the 1,044 elevation,” Murphy said. “Another thing we consider is that we have to keep water at a certain level to avoid ice damage to the intake over the winter.”
Whether water restrictions are put in place up to the municipalities, Murphy said.
Municipalities make the decisions on whether to impose water restrictions. Alberta Environment and Parks simply lets everyone know the water levels and the outlook.
The heaviest inflow into the Pine Coulee reservoir occurs each spring.
Coun. Darry Markle said the concern about water is not just with the Pine Coulee reservoir, he had his well water level on his farm tested just the day before, and it was found to be down 75 per cent.
“The water table is dropping,” Markle said.
Before Pine Coulee water level reaches critical levels, people in both Claresholm. and Granum should not be complacent, said Murphy.
“We are trying to get the word out that people should not be wasting water and are using it in the best possible way,” Murphy said, adding this year has been dry with spotty showers.
“Over the last couple of years we haven’t had as much water being diverted into the reservoir.”
Gerber said, “We are not going to see much more water flowing into the reservoir this year unless we see a substantial rainfall. That rainfall would have to be of long duration.”
At the end of the address of the water experts, Reeve Maryanne Sandberg, said, “This is a serious issue.”
MD of Willow Creek chief administrative officer Cynthia Vizzutti said the news about the reservoir limits is sobering for future subdivision applications that would draw off the reservoir.

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