It is already – at least according to its mayor – the biggest town in Alberta, but the stage has been set for the town of Okotoks to grow even larger.
Following much debate and growing pressure, Okotoks town council voted 5-2 in favour of eliminating the town’s population cap of 30,000.
“There was a fair bit of pressure to lift the cap,” said Mayor Bill Robertson, who was one of those in council who voted in favour of the move. “We’ve consulted for the last year on this issue. We’ve had water speakers in. We did a community consultation. We’ve had workshops, online surveys and so on, so we’ve had extensive consultation. There’s been a lot of soul searching on this.”
Since 2006, the town’s population has grown from 17,150 to the 24,962 residents calling Okotoks home today. Developed in 1998, the previous growth model for the town had capped Okotoks’ future expansion in part due to concern’s about the town’s water supply.
The Sheep River currently provides the town’s water supply, however, the carrying capacity of the river is estimated at around 35,000 people. According to the town’s own estimates under a “continued growth” scenario, a population of 60,000 will likely be reached within 50 years.
In a recent survey commissioned by the town, 85 per cent of residents expressed concerns about the future water supply of the town, with nearly half (46%) stating they were “very concerned” about where the water would come from.
“We do have to secure more water supply because in the town we have water for about another 2,000 people,” said Robertson. “We need to look at purchasing more water licenses on the Sheep (River) or perhaps along the Highwood Basin, or doing some things a little differently, perhaps getting some grey water considerations from the province, rain water harvesting – any number of different things we’ll be looking at over the next year or two.”
One option that could solve the town’s water woes but according to Robertson is not being considered at this point is building a water pipeline from Calgary.
“The Calgary pipeline is always in the background. We’re not considering that at this time just because we need to look at the more sustainable solutions first,” he said.
In addition to fears about the town’s water supply, another concern voiced by area residents in the survey was a fear that Okotoks was “losing the small town feel”. Despite nearly all (98%) Okotoks residents reporting the quality of life in the town was either “very good” (55%) or good (44%), an overwhelming majority (74%) still expressed concerns about population growth, with nearly half (46%) of the residents saying that Okotoks was growing “too fast.”
However, Robertson feels small town charm isn’t about numbers but about attitude.
“I’ve always thought you can have small town charm at 1,000, 10,000 or 50,000 people. We are the largest town in Alberta right now at 25,000 people,” he said. “I think it comes down to an attitude and what the people think within the town. We have quite a few community events – the last one being the Grey Cup train, and it was a phenomenal event.”