Protection of Existing Rights

The Water Act is a legislative tool that supports and promotes the conservation and management of water in Alberta. With this statute, the Government of Alberta has committed to protecting existing good standing water rights and water resources for future generations. It recognizes the need for shared responsibility among all Albertans to ensure continued and viable economic growth and prosperity in Alberta.

The Water Act regulates the diversion of water from surface and groundwater sources by a variety of methods including statutory rights for household purposes, registrations for traditional agriculture uses, and licences. Under certain circumstances, the Water Act may allow for certain diversions to be exempt (for example, firefighting) from licensing requirements. These exemptions are specified in the Water Act - Water (Ministerial) Regulation.

Household Purposes

The Water Act protects water being used for household purposes by providing a statutory right for household purposes (section 21) and giving it top priority over all other uses of water (section 27). A licence is not required for this type of diversion.

To qualify as a household user under section 21, a person must own or occupy land that adjoins a river, stream, lake, natural watercourse or other natural water body, or own or occupy land under which groundwater exists. The water must be used for human consumption, sanitation, fire prevention and watering animals, gardens, lawns and trees. This right applies to a maximum of only 1,250 cubic metres of water per year per household.

To address any concerns regarding the development of subdivisions, the Water Act (section 23) requires that a report be submitted to the subdivision authority. The purpose of this report is to determine water availability for the proposed subdivision and any impacts the proposed development may have on any household users, licensees or traditional agriculture users who exist when the subdivision is approved.

Traditional Agriculture Use

The Water Act allows agricultural water users who used water prior to January 1, 1999, to raise animals and apply pesticides to crops, to register their water use and receive a priority number dating back to the time of first use. The registration process was meant to provide a fair mechanism of protecting traditional agriculture water uses while at the same time minimizing the impact on existing licensed users.

A water right in the form of a registration is attached to the land specified in the registration and will pass with the land if the land is sold to a new owner. The Water Act requires that the Designated Director under the Water Act (Director) be notified in writing of a disposition such as a sale or purchase of land for which a registration is appurtenant.

Applications for registration were accepted from both landowners and lessees from January 1, 1999 to December 31, 2001. Registrations for traditional agriculture use have no expiry date.

The Water Act allows exempted agriculture users, who on or before January 1, 1999 owned or occupied land that adjoins a river, lake or natural watercourse or other natural water body or land under which groundwater exists to continue to divert up to 6,250 cubic metres of water per year for the purposes of raising animals or applying pesticides to crops without a formal authorization.

Licensing Requirements

Under the Water Act, a licence is required for diversions of water with a few exceptions:

  • Household purposes
  • Registration for traditional agriculture use
  • Those diversions identified under the Water Act - Water (Ministerial) Regulation

For additional information on licensing under the Water Act, see the Licenses fact sheet at: Education/Guidelines.

Water Allocation Transfer Under a Licence

Alberta's Water Act allows the transfer of the right to divert a volume of water from a source of water supply, under a certain priority. There is no physical transfer of water from the land. This type of transfer is voluntary, with a willing seller and willing buyer.

The Alberta government monitors this system through a number of control mechanisms. These require that a transfer must first be authorized in a water management plan or through an order of Cabinet. A transfer can be reviewed by the Alberta government, which can withhold a percentage of the transferred water.

In response to comments from Albertans on the potential long-term impact on the basic requirements for water, the Water Act specifically states that the rights related to household purposes and registrations for traditional agricultural uses are not subject to the transfer provisions. These rights will always remain attached to the land.

Transfers can be permanent or temporary. With a temporary transfer, the transferred allocation reverts to the original licensee after a specified time period. The government's holdback of up to 10% of the water in an allocation transfer can remain in the natural water body or be held in a Water Conservation Objective licence and will not be available for reallocation for other uses. This holdback applies to permanent and temporary transfers of allocations.