Canadian federalism and the governance of water scarcity in the South Saskatchewan River Basin


Water governance in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB), a transboundary river basin in western Canada, occurs in one of the world’s most decentralized federations. The provinces sharing the SSRB—Alberta and Saskatchewan—have primary responsibility for governing water scarcity in the basin and have done so with minimal intergovernmental coordination, oriented around an interprovincial apportionment of their shared waters, and with little involvement of the federal government. While most studies of transboundary river basin governance have focused on the importance of intergovernmental collective action, the SSRB case highlights the importance of governmental policy innovation. The decentralized nature of SSRB governance has allowed Alberta to pursue a ‘cap and trade’ policy innovation and Saskatchewan to pursue a centralized management policy innovation simultaneously, creating an unusual degree of policy divergence between two basin-sharing jurisdictions. In this way, the SSRB shows a different ‘face’ of federalism that is not as evident in most other cases, that is, the capacity for federalism to spur sub-national policy innovation in addition to intergovernmental cooperation.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Further details about the interviewees are not provided in order to protect their confidentiality.

  2. 2.

    It is important to note that the interprovincial apportionment of the SSRB is nested within an international apportionment of the St. Mary and Milk rivers, in the headwaters of the SSRB, outlined in Article VI of the Boundary Waters Treaty (1909) between the USA and the UK (who signed the treaty on Canada’s behalf). The implementation of Article VI is one of the few water governance areas in the SSRB where the Canadian government has a significant presence.

  3. 3.

    Alberta’s ‘Water for Life’ initiative, introduced in 2003, might be considered a fourth policy strategy but it has not substantively changed the institutional rules governing water use in the SSRB, so it is not considered here.


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The author would like to thank the interviewees in this study for their valuable input and feedback. He would also like to thank Dustin Garrick and Lucia De Stefano for organizing this special issue and providing important guidance in the article’s development and the journal’s anonymous reviewers for providing critical and constructive suggestions that improved the article greatly.

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Correspondence to B. Timothy Heinmiller.

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Heinmiller, B.T. Canadian federalism and the governance of water scarcity in the South Saskatchewan River Basin. Reg Environ Change 18, 1667–1677 (2018).

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  • Canada
  • Federalism
  • Intergovernmental relations
  • Water governance
  • Water scarcity
  • Policy innovation