Funding to watershed group must go on fracking research
After being petitioned by board members of the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance to renew membership in the provincial advisory group, Mountain View County council agreed last week to the request – but with two strings attached.
Council’s motion, passed unanimously Wednesday afternoon after almost an hour of delegations, stipulates that the RDRWA must spend the county’s per-capita funding – about $6,200 – on research into “groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracking.”
The motion also makes funding conditional on the board holding meetings that are open to the public.
“I don’t wanna bail on this – I wanna try,” said Div. 6 Coun. Paddy Munro, who presented the motion after speaking critically about the group’s closed-door meetings and the “data gaps” on fracking and forestry in its 2009 State of the Watershed Report.
“I can’t stress how important this is. I am not happy with how things are right now. I don’t think the board is open and transparent,” Munro said.
With municipal officials from Red Deer, Stettler and Kneehill counties sitting in the gallery, RDRWA chairman Tom Daniels described the non-profit planning group as “a huge opportunity for stakeholder engagement,” but said its mandate is to complete an Integrated Watershed Management Plan for the region, not act as “a lobby group.”
Filling in data gaps, however, costs “a lot of money” and requires funding partners – “and you have to balance it off with the social and economic benefits,” Daniels said.
Responding to Munro’s comments on the group ignoring the impact of fracking and forestry, Daniels said the RDRWA had held consultation sessions on both industries in recent years.
“We’re not ignoring those issues – we’re trying to deal with those issues in a way that makes sense to the stakeholders,” Daniels said.
Munro countered that the public feedback received at open houses was downplayed in the State of the Watershed Report, making “a mockery of the legitimate concerns of its citizens.”
When he pressed Daniels later in the meeting on the lack of baseline water data for future comparison, Daniels acknowledged, “That is a data gap. Only now has the government done a groundwater atlas. We’re just getting that now.”
The watershed management plan would look at water issues in 2013, he added.
“We’re not prepared to back up and say, ‘Deal with this now.’ ”
Asked by Div. 7 Coun. Al Kemmere if the fracking process could be included in the plan along with irrigation and municipal water, Daniels said, “Absolutely it can. It just hasn’t been on the table. It’s definitely on the radar, just not right now.”
Red Deer city councillor Dianne Wyntjes, one of three municipal members on the board, urged council to set aside past issues and take its place at the table.
“We need to focus on water and all of us need to be at that table,” Wyntjes said.
“The watershed alliance hasn’t been perfect but … we need your presence there.”
Bob Bryant, a municipal board member for Clearwater County, said he understood the concerns about fracking, “but it’s a totally different issue” from the group’s mandate to develop a regional plan, he added.
On the impact of fracking and logging, Bryant said the board takes its advice from a technical committee.
“Those things are mentioned. They don’t have the import you’d want to put on them,” he told Munro, “but that may change in the future. If you were to run (for a board position) we’d certainly have your expertise in those areas.”
Other speakers advised council to refuse the funding request – including Rob Schwartz, the only public member on the RDRWA board.
The fracking issue, Schwartz said, “has been brought up since 2008 at the watershed board meetings and to my way of thinking we still haven’t dealt with it.”
Schwartz said when he joined the watershed alliance as a member in 2005, Alberta Environment’s mandate was environmental protection, but that role has since changed to environmental management.
“This is important because Alberta Environment, the majority funder (of RDRWA), is now environmental manager – an organization that manages problems, not manages the environment. The problem has to occur before they get involved. A major deal there.”
The department’s latest policy changes have reduced requirements to fast-track projects and officials have told the RDRWA board that the province will not fund data gaps, Schwartz said.
“With the watershed alliance being a child of Alberta Environment, it’s very unlikely things will go in the direction we hope,” he said.
“I would advise against funding it for a special project because the watershed alliance has no obligation to report to any municipality. They report to Alberta Environment only and it would be a waste of money.”
Patricia Pickup, part of a delegation from Rocky View County called POWERS (Protecting Our Water and Ecological Resources Synergy), said her area has seen “devastating effects” from fracking, including earthquakes and human and livestock health issues.
Pickup also questioned why there would be a data gap on the impact of fracking when “it’s been going on for over 10 years.”
Landowner Glenn Norman urged council not to fund “this ineffectual and exclusive organization,” at a time when the fracking issue is “only going to get bigger.” The board’s closed meetings, he added, are in violation of its bylaws.
“As a ratepayer I can’t support it,” he said.
At one point, Wyntjes said the emphasis on fracking was misplaced.
“We’ve heard about fracking but I don’t think that should be the focus of our discussion. It’s also a federal problem and we should be having these discussions with not only the provincial but federal government as well,” she said.
Quoting a funding breakdown that was slightly revised from the previous week’s numbers provided by administration, Munro said the RDRWA is funded 80 per cent by Alberta Environment, 18 per cent by member municipalities, and two per cent by industry.
“I’m a little disappointed in industry’s contribution to this,” Div. 3 Coun. Duncan Milne said. “It’s in their best interests to look into this too.”
Council passed a followup motion by Kemmere asking the watershed alliance to expand its municipal membership from the current three positions “to bring it closer to the funding model.”
The county’s motions will be presented to the RDRWA board at its March 16 meeting.
During the meeting, Daniels said if the county wanted to target a project with its funding, the board would have to look at what the project is and whether other municipalities are willing to contribute dollars.
“At the end of the day, the plan is all about whether we have stakeholders’ involvement. Change really has to come from within,” Daniels said.