Traditional Agricultural User Water Rights Denied

Ranchers in the Milk River watershed are receiving letters from Alberta Environment and Parks advising them that their historic water use applications are cancelled and further use of the water sources puts them in contravention of the Water Act. The reason for cancelling the applications are not clear. What the letters don't tell these ranchers, who have been using their water rights for generations, is that they only have 30 days to appeal to the Environmental Appeals Board. If they don't appeal in that time, their application is cancelled with no chance of opening it back up.

When the Water Act was enacted back in 1996, livestock groups fought to have provisions included to allow existing traditional water use by farmers and ranchers to continue. All they had to do was apply to bring their existing water use within the new regulatory framework of the Water Act. The Act required farmers and ranchers to apply to codify their traditional user water rights with the cutoff of December 31, 2001. Many ranchers remember all the reports and maps they had to submit for their applications back then. They were assured their traditional uses would be protected by the Act and this was just to make sure watersheds did not become over allocated.

Registrations under the Act were to be assigned a priority number based on the date of first water use by the traditional agricultural user. A registration under the Water Act does not expire. Applications for water licenses would be assigned a priority based on the date of the licence application.

Brower Ranching Company received a letter on December 27, 2017 advising of the cancellation of their water use application. In subsequent efforts to resolve this problem with the application, which includes the water source for the house, owner Aaron Brower learned that many other ranches in the Milk River basin received the same letter closing their traditional agricultural user right applications. When Aaron asked the department what information they needed to reinstate the application, the reply he received was that the file was closed and cannot be reopened. At this point, Aaron contacted his lawyer to file an official appeal. Below is a link to the appeal letter filed by Keith Wilson, legal representative for Aaron Brower and Brower Ranching Company.

There are a number of alarming and disturbing points to this action by the government:

  • The letter that Brower Ranching received, which is most likely the same as other ranchers received, did not include the information that they had 30 days to appeal after which there was no chance to revive the traditional agriculture water use. The 30 days appeal time is written in the legislation though. So how many ranchers are out there that didn't appeal in 30 days and are now stripped of their traditional agriculture water use rights that were supposed to be protected by the Water Act?
  • The government letter that Brower received claimed that efforts were made to contact Brower Ranching requesting additional information but no response was received. But Aaron and his family were never contacted and an official in the Department confirmed that they weren't contacted. Furthermore, the Department has failed to supply any records indicating they tried to contact the Browers before making the decision to take away their water rights.
  • The government says that ranchers have a chance to reapply for their water rights. But the right to apply to codify traditional agricultural user rights expired a very long time ago back on December 31, 2001. Therefore government's actions are effectively stripping these ranchers of the water rights they were supposed to get under the Water Act.
  • Aaron's lawyer says Alberta law requires traditional agricultural user rights to be recognized and the Department's claim that it is closing application files and cannot reopen them is not legal and is an unlawful attempt to defeat the protections afforded to farmers and ranchers under the Water Act. There is nothing in Alberta law that prevents the Director from completing the processing of these applications yet the Department still refuses to do so.
  • In discussions with government, Aaron was told the department would soon be closing the Milk River watershed to any new surface water allocations. That would mean many of these ranchers who have had their applications cancelled and files closed would be prevented from obtaining any legal right to use the water that exists on their ranch and is critical to the survival of their livestock and business. This could effectively depopulate the rural areas.