Part of Drought

Drought – Information for Water Licence holders and municipalities

Find out how communities and major users can prepare for water shortages.

Water management in Alberta

Saint Mary Reservoir - waterbody surrounded by land and rocks

In Alberta, water management response is shared with:

  • the province
  • water providers
  • regional districts
  • municipalities
  • Indigenous communities

Although the situation is critical, with proactive water management and working together, we can make the best use of the province’s water supply and increase our chances of being able to meet the needs of all water users.

Licence holder responsibilities during drought

It is the responsibility of the water licence holder to understand and follow the terms and conditions of their licence. During a water shortage, licence holders gain access to water by any of these 3 methods, or a combination of.

  • Seniority-based

    Seniority calls (also called priority calls) can be made by senior licence holders. When there is not enough water to meet all of the licensee needs in a particular basin, a senior licence holder may contact the department to administer priority rights. 

    For example, a licensee with a more senior (older) licence has the right to divert some or all of its allocation, subject to its licence terms and conditions, before a more junior licensee has access to that water. This is referred to as being first in time, first in right.

    In order to administer a priority call, the department may issue a water management order to junior licence holders. Water management orders are enforceable under Section 142 (1)(c) of the Water Act. Restrictions apply until the senior licence holder’s needs have been met and the order has been lifted by the department.

  • Water assignment

    An agreement to assign water distributes existing licensed allocations between licensees. Section 33 of the Water Act allows a licensee or registrant to temporarily assign all or part of the water allocation and priority under their licence or registration to another licensee or traditional agricultural user for a period of time set out in an agreement to assign.

    The diversion of assigned water must be done in accordance with the licence of the person receiving the water, including conditions to meet in-stream objectives and timing to divert.

    The licensee who assigned the water cannot divert the water that they have temporarily assigned under the agreement, and the receiving licensee must not divert a total amount of water that exceeds the amount specified in their own licence. If a receiving licensee wants to divert more water than their licence is allocated for, then a temporary transfer is required.

    Licensees should carefully consider the consequences of assigning all or a portion of their allocation and priority.

  • Water transfer

    A water transfer is a temporary or permanent transfer of all or part of an allocation of water under a licence to another licensee or new water user. Transfers are the primary method to enable a new project or water user to divert water in a river basin that has been “closed” to new allocations.

    Transfers are also a means for an existing licensee to manage the risk of water shortage by acquiring a licence with a more senior priority. A person can apply for a transfer of an allocation of water under a licence in accordance with section 81 of the Water Act. However, a transfer application can only be considered if an existing water management plan or an order of the Lieutenant Governor in Council has authorized water transfers in that area of Alberta.

    A transfer will result in issuance of a new licence with the same priority number as the licence from which the allocation was transferred. The new licence will be subject to any terms and conditions the director considers appropriate, which may include a new location for the diversion.

Provincial staff are working with licence holders, major water users and key water partners to support water conservation planning, as required.

Staff from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (EPA) will continue to complete information sharing and compliance verification activities with licensed water users, as needed.

Municipality responsibilities during drought

Municipalities play a large role in water management during drought as they:

  • are responsible for water supply and distribution to communities
  • develop community-wide water shortage response plans which may include voluntary or mandatory water restrictions
  • declare agricultural disasters when crops are impacted by drought

Government officials are meeting with municipal representatives to ensure everyone is prepared and to maximize water usage.

Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz wrote to municipalities asking them to take specific actions to prepare for the risk of severe drought in 2024.

What licence holders and municipalities can do

There are steps that licence holders and municipalities can take to help conserve water and prepare for the risk of severe drought. All water licence holders are asked to familiarize themselves with their licence and its conditions. It is the responsibility of water licence holders to read, understand and comply with their licence conditions related to low flow restrictions.

In addition, it is important that all water licence holders:

  • abide by the conditions outlined in their licence
  • develop and implement water conservation measures and water shortage plans to help ensure every drop counts
  • stay in contact with Alberta Environment and Protected Areas on monitoring, forecasts and regular updates

Developing water shortage agreements

Without proactive water management practices in place, there is a higher potential for water shortages and for some water users to lose access to this precious resource.

It is in the best interests of water users to support each other by fairly and equitably sharing our currently limited water supply. This is because of the dependencies that exist throughout the supply chain. For example, agricultural producers rely on processors to develop products from the produce they supply. If the processor is left without water and is consequently unable to operate, the producer runs the risk of not being able to sell their product.

Voluntary agreements to share water

In February 2024, Alberta’s government will begin meeting with major water users and other key stakeholders in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (Red Deer, Bow and Old Man basins), to develop voluntary agreements to share water if there’s a severe drought. Once completed, these water-sharing agreements increase the chances of more water users having access to some water this year, even during a significant drought.

Stay informed on drought conditions

Stay up to date. Follow water shortage advisories and the latest information through:

Sign up to receive a “push notification” if there are advisories in your area.



Connect with Environment and Protected Areas’ Outreach Services:

Hours: 8:15 am to 4:30 pm (open Monday to Friday, closed statutory holidays)
Toll free: 310-3773 (in Alberta)
Email: [email protected]