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Project Description:

This report summarizes the work and results of a study entitled “Assessment of the Vulnerability of Key Water Use Sectors in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (Alberta and Saskatchewan) to Changes in Water Supply Resulting from Climate Change”. That study constitutes the socioeconomic research team component of a unique, two-team project that examined the impact of predicted climate change on the surface water supply of the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB). A major contribution of the overall project was to link the physical, hydrological and socioeconomic aspects of those changes in an innovative, “end-to-end” analytical framework.

This report lays a foundation for future analyses and recognizes that the net impacts of climate change on the physical and social dimensions of the basin will continue to be influenced by shifting social, economic and environmental priorities and activities. The results presented here can inform site-specific decisions (as demonstrated for three cities) as well as guide infrastructure and policy debates. The value of applying these results in an integrated, yet practical, water management approach to assist in sub-basin, sectoral decision-making was a strong consensus of the expert and stakeholder consultations held across the basin as part of this study.


SSRB Final Technical Report [PDF, 5.6Mb]
[right click on the image and select "Save As…" or "Save Link As…]

Note: This project was co-funded by the Government of Canada's Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Division and the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative.

Legacy web content from the SSRB project can be viewed below.

Climate Change and Water in the South Saskatchewan River Basin


This project will assess the current sensitivity of regional socio-economic systems to changes in water supply, and the future vulnerability of these systems under projected changes to the environment, economy and society of the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB).


The SSRB extends from the Continental Divide, through southern Alberta and into south-central Saskatchewan. A small portion of the basin extends into the United States but is not directly considered in this project. The SSRB contains four major sub-basins: the Red Deer, Oldman, Bow and South Saskatchewan. Several major reservoirs regulate river flows in the basin. Water supplied to the major tributaries of the SSRB is generated from snow and melting glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. Roughly 90% of the total South Saskatchewan River flow comes from the Rocky Mountains and 10% is contributed from runoff in the prairie region of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Soil moisture conditions and runoff in the prairie region of the basin are dependent on local snowfall and rainfall.


The current population of the SSRB is estimated at 1.5 million people. Of this, roughly 20% are in Saskatchewan and 80% in Alberta. Less than 5% of the population is estimated to live in rural communities. The largest urban centre is Calgary with a population of just under 1 million people. Differences in resource availability, institutions and policies, and economic activities between Alberta and Saskatchewan have produced different economies. Therefore, it might be expected that they will respond differently to changes in water availability. For example, in the Alberta portion of the basin, the predominant industries are oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing. In the Saskatchewan portion, the predominant industries are agriculture, manufacturing and mining.



Photo: Courtesy of Alberta Environment


Climate Change and Water in the SSRB

According to Environment Canada, the Canadian Prairie provinces have seen a warming trend over the past 50 years, with the largest increases in the winter months (about 3°C) and the least over the summer months (about 0.2°C). With the rise in temperature, snow-fall precipitation has decreased, while spring snow melt is occurring earlier. Climate change projections also suggest that further warming of about 1°C to 3.5°C will occur across Canada over the next century. Projections concerning precipitation are more uncertain. Soil moisture conditions and the availability of water in rivers and reservoirs will depend upon the combined effects of changes in precipitation and evaporation.

Potential Impacts for the SSRB

  • Changes in annual streamflow (possibly with large declines in the summer) have implications for hydroelectric generation, the economy, society, water apportionment, and ecosystems
  • Increased likelihood of severe drought and increasing aridity in semi-arid zones could result in losses in agricultural production and changes in land use
  • Changes in irrigation demand and water availability during the irrigation season would have uncertain impacts on farm sector incomes, groundwater, streamflow and water quality


Study Components

The Climate Change and Water in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) project consists of two linked components, each funded independently. A physical modelling component will examine future water availability in the SSRB under the potential impact of climate change. A socio-economic component will assess the impact of water resource availability on key water withdrawal and in-stream use sectors in the SSRB.

Future climate scenarios project that some of the largest potential changes in surface water quantity will occur in the Canadian prairies. Adapting to these changes requires a sophisticated understanding of both the hydrological cycle within the prairie eco-zone and the adaptive capabilities of the socio-economic systems that depend on it.

Physical Modelling Component

Down-scaled Global Circulation Models (GCM) are used to project changes in local temperature and precipitation patterns. The climate information is then used to simulate future river flows in the SSRB using the WATFLOOD and SACRAMENTO hydrologic models. The results of the simulation are used to assess the impact of changes in water availability on the economy and society in the basin.

Socio-Economic Component

In the SSRB, where water allocation can exceed flow volumes, water use is a major concern. Should flow volumes decline in the future under climate change, this would have implications for water management within the basin.

Several major water use sectors are considered, including: Irrigation, Stock-Watering, Rural Domestic, Urban Municipal (including industrial), Industrial (not part of the municipal water systems), Mining, Thermal Energy Generation, Hydroelectric Energy Generation, and Inter-jurisdictional Apportionment, Recreation and Wetlands.


Important Questions to be Answered

In the context of future water resource availability several questions are raised:

  • Who and what are vulnerable to climate changes within the SSRB and where?
  • What are the potential socio-economic impacts for the region if no measures are taken to adapt to possible changes?
  • What is the adaptive capacity of current socio-economic systems?
  • Are there thresholds within both the hydrological and socio-economic systems beyond which adaptation is ineffective?
  • Are there any socio-economic, political and/or institutional barriers to proactive, beneficial adaptation?
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