Environmental flows projects

Summaries of Environmental Flows Program projects taking place in watersheds across Alberta.


The Environmental Flows Program has led and supported instream flow field studies throughout the province. The program incorporates ecological requirements for healthy aquatic ecosystems into water allocation decisions and water management planning processes. By working with our partners on the following projects, significant work has been completed to protect environmental flows in the province.

Alberta, provincewide

Surface Water Allocation Directive

The Environmental Flows Program, in collaboration with Alberta Water Policy, developed The Surface Water Allocation Directive (2019) which provides guidance to water allocation decisions for rivers, lakes and wetlands using a sustainable watershed approach.

The Surface Water Allocation Directive provides an evaluation method for consistent water allocation decisions where there are no established water management objectives. The directive balances both ecological needs and economic considerations and applies to new water licence applications across all sectors and temporary diversion licences. The directive does not impact existing licences but may be applicable to term licences at time of renewal.

The Surface Water Allocation Directive builds upon the fundamental ecological principles of the Desktop Method for Establishing Environmental Flows in Alberta Rivers and Streams (Locke and Paul 2011) and incorporates the latest environmental flows science for rivers and lakes.

A Desktop Method for Establishing Environmental Flows in Alberta Rivers and Streams

The Alberta Government developed A Desktop Method for Establishing Environmental Flows in Alberta Rivers and Streams (Locke and Paul 2011, also known as the ‘Alberta Desktop Method’) to determine environmental flows (instream flow needs) using readily available hydrology data. This important work is a significant contribution to understanding and managing environmental flows for full protection.

Athabasca River

The Environmental Flows Program was a significant contributor to determine environmental flows and subsequently recommend a water management framework for the lower Athabasca River. This project was a comprehensive multi-year effort led by Cumulative Environmental Management Association.

Battle River

This approved water management plan for Alberta’s Battle River Basin was developed to meet the challenges of maintaining water quantity and quality due to naturally low flow volumes, conditions of the basin and the cumulative effects of municipal, industrial and agricultural activities.

Cold Lake-Beaver River

A water management plan was developed for the Cold Lake-Beaver River basins to provide for an adequate quantity and quality of water to meet the long-term user requirements of the basin. The region experienced increased industrial development, considerable population growth and years of below-normal precipitation.

Lesser Slave Lake and River

The Environmental Flows Program supported the Lesser Slave Watershed Council to develop the Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The plan sets goals and objectives for the long-term management of land and water resources in the basin and provides guidance for landowners, governments, planners and other watershed stakeholders.

Instream flow needs scoping studies were conducted to support and inform the water management planning process and develop an environmental flow recommendation.

North Saskatchewan River

The Environmental Flows Program supported the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) to develop a detailed instream flow needs scope of work report for the North Saskatchewan River. Visit the NSWA website at:

Red Deer River

The Government of Alberta has developed a method for evaluating impacts to the aquatic environment for various flow scenarios on the Red Deer River. The report outlines the methods and predicted environmental impacts.

South Saskatchewan River Basin

The South Saskatchewan River Basin Study examined a number of main stem reaches within the basin, characterized the natural flow regimes and studied 4 components of the aquatic ecosystem (channel maintenance, fish habitat, riparian vegetation and water quality). The intent of the study was to provide an environmental flows recommendation based on the objective to fully protect the aquatic ecosystem.

Highwood River Instream Flow Needs Study

This study was the first of its kind carried out in Alberta to have multi-stakeholder participation, incorporate the higher or channel forming flows, specify a comprehensive Ecosystem Base and be based on the natural flow regime.

Wapiti River water management plan

The Environmental Flows Program provided scientific support for the stakeholder developed Wapiti River water management plan. The Water Conservation Objective (WCO) within the plan provides water allocation guidance which balances water consumption, protection of the aquatic environment, and allows for economic growth now and into the future.