Water Policy and Extreme Climate Events

Principal Investigator - Dr. Ted Horbulyk, Department of Economics, University of Calgary, 2012-2015


Canadians are at increasing risk from water‐related events such as multiyear droughts, flooding and/or significant changes in historical precipitation patterns.  Extreme hydrological events can also hinder our ability to protect and manage groundwater resources.  The sets of specific precautionary measures and responses that are available to private versus public water users and stakeholders are not well understood, nor are they necessarily enabled or encouraged by existing water policies.

For example, there may be beneficial roles for selective infrastructure investments, revised water management protocols, or legal and regulatory changes, where these approaches can be considerably more effective, if undertaken in a coordinated manner.  Some effects of increased flooding or drought can be more readily accommodated by some water using sectors than others, yet mechanisms to coordinate beneficial actions across sectors may be lacking.  Although the returns to specific investment alternatives will be highly location and context‐specific, some types of prior investments or actions might have relatively higher returns than would come from remedial or adaptive measures alone.


The objective of this project has been to identify and assess water policy reforms to help Canadians prepare for and respond to extreme climate events such as droughts, flooding and greater hydrologic variation.  Further, the project has sought to identify and assess selective public and private investments to prevent, to prepare for, to mitigate or to respond to extreme climate events.  Such investments include, investments in system capacity, reliability, resilience and infrastructure.  The research has employed computational methods to simulate the effects of various extreme events and has used the methods of social cost-effectiveness analysis to compared alternative strategies that mitigate the social costs of these events.

Project researchers have worked with Hydrologics, Inc. to extend computational analysis (based on the Bow River Operational Model) to explore hypothetical episodes of drought that are more severe and/or more prolonged than those that have been previously studied.  These modelling results with revised climate parameters characterize the scope and extent of (simulated and hypothetical) multiyear droughts that could affect the South Saskatchewan Basin of Alberta.  While such extreme events have a low probability of occurrence, if climate does become more extreme lessons from California and Australia suggest that there could be a large economic return from making and enabling policy changes prior to the arrival of specific drought events.

On the flood side, this research has compared and contrasted various infrastructural approaches to future flood protection, with the use of other policy tools such as zoning, regulation and flood insurance.  This work also points to specific gaps in the methodologies currently employed to estimate the social costs of flood events, and, by extension, to estimate the social returns to flood mitigation measures.


Research team hosted a key end-user oriented workshop to mobilize research efforts:

  • The principal investigator was a member of the organizing committee and an invited participant for the workshop organized by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to target participants’ approaches to climate adaptation planning.  "Strengthening Economic Security of Irrigated Agriculture in the Oldman Basin in the Context of Climate Extremes and Climate Variability." (November 6, 2013) Lethbridge. 

Additionally, this research has been disseminated through several presentations:

  • “Policy Preparation for Drought in the South Saskatchewan River Basin of Alberta,” Canadian Water Resources Association 2015: 68th National CWRA Conference, “More Extremes? Preparing for future challenges to Canada’s water resources,” Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 2-4, 2015.
  • “Investments in Resiliency: Calgary's Preparation for Climate Extremes in the Wake of the Great Flood of 2013,” American Water Resources Association 2015 Spring Specialty Conference: Water for Urban Areas - Managing Risks and Building Resiliency, Los Angeles, California, March 30-April 1, 2015.


Outcomes include:

  • Changes in policy. The intended or anticpated outcomes include a greater understanding of relative costs and benefits of actions to be taken with respect to climate extremes.  Some of these will occur in the short term (increased knowledge, changes in attitudes), and others will occur in the medium term (changes in practice or policy, informing investment decisions).  Medium-term outcomes will have diverse and enduring effects that could include cost savings and impacts on the environment and the economy (long-term outcomes). For example, a greater realization of the potential role of flood zoning and voluntary-versus-mandatory flood insurance can result in a reassessment of more costly investments in physical infrastructure.

Research Team and Partners:

Principal Investigator:

Research Team:


  • University of Calgary
  • Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions