Low Water Levels in the Athabasca River are a Preview of Future Problems for Alberta's Tar Sands Industry

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This blog was co-authored by Roxane Régis, a consultant for NRDC's Canada Project.

The summer of 2015 seemed to begin with wildfires. The entire western coast of North America was already bone-dry by June, after record low snow packs left the region parched and the promise of spring and early summer rain never materialized. In Alberta, fires quickly began to burn, some so large and so close to oil and gas operations that shutdowns were required. As water levels continued to decline, the Alberta government issued a low flow advisory for the Upper Athabasca River Basin in July, prompting those authorized to make withdrawals to reduce their water consumption. With water levels declining "significantly below normal levels," the Alberta Energy Regulator suspended all temporary diversion licenses for oil and gas operators in the region, who use ground and river water for drilling, dust control, and other purposes. Though a positive step to preserve the health of the Athabasca, two major tar sands producers--Syncrude and Suncor--were exempt from the restrictions because their operations are in the Lower Athabasca Region.

Athabasca River new its headwaters. Photo by Sarunas Burdulls, 2008.

While most of the restrictions were lifted on September 16, the underlying issue of increasing water scarcity in the region is far from resolved. Tar sands extraction operations, whether done through surface mining or in situ drilling and steaming, are extremely water-intensive. Where tar sands are strip-mined from below the surface of Alberta's Boreal forest, water is used to separate bitumen from surrounding sediment, as in Syncrude's and Suncor's large mining operations near Fort McMurray. After this water is used, it cannot be returned to the Athabasca, and is stored in toxic tailings ponds that currently cover 220 square kilometers (85 square miles). For in situ operators, water is used to create steam that heats the bitumen underground to make it flow into production wells so that it can be pumped to the surface. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that it currently takes as many as 2.8 barrels of fresh water to produce one barrel of crude oil from tar sands.

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Tar sands tailings pond. Photo by Jennifer Grant, 2009.

Extraction operations in Alberta's tar sands heavily rely on the Athabasca River as their primary source of fresh water, currently diverting 4.4% of the river's annual flow, or at least 170 million cubic meters of water per year. This percentage is expected to more than double in the next decade if mining operations expand as the industry hopes. The current drought, and the risk that such a drought could continue for many years, suggests that the rate of diversion may increase significantly, even if the volumes of water used don't actually rise. Indeed, a number of studies are beginning to reveal agreement among scientists that one of the major challenges facing the tar sands industry will be water scarcity due to declining flows in the Athabasca River.

Climate change is taking a toll on the river, rapidly melting the glacier ice and snowpack that feed it at its source in the Canadian Rockies of Western Alberta, and declining flows have already been observed throughout the Athabasca River Basin. In a new study analyzing the long-term reliability of the Athabasca River as the water source for tar sands mining, researchers also point out that the oil industry's assessment of water availability may be flawed because their models only examine recent seasonal fluctuations in water levels as opposed to relying on longer-term models that account for climatic variability and change.

Conducting an analysis of 900 years of tree ring data, researchers were able to determine that the Athabasca River basin has periodically experienced severe decade-long droughts throughout its history. Indeed, their findings show that it is likely that such a long-lasting drought - magnified further by global warming - will occur in the near future. The analysis aligns with previous studies that had already sounded the alarm bell on this "impending water crisis," with the researches encouraging the oil industry that they "have a contingency plan in place."

The low water levels of the Athabasca River are just one more indicator of the harmful impacts of the tar sands industry on Alberta's environment. Alberta's Boreal forest is one of the last wild forests left in the world, the northern home to many of North America's migratory birds as well as caribou, moose, and thousands of other species. The Athabasca River is a tributary of the Mackenzie, Canada's longest river and the Mackenzie River Basin is considered Canada's "Serengeti" due to its high levels of biodiversity and ecological productivity. Unless the expansion of tar sands operations is slowed and stopped, the industry will only keep straining this valuable ecosystem, not to mention threatening its own viability if a low-water future becomes a reality.

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Tar sands operations beside the Athabasca River. Photo by Jennifer Grant, 2011.

Tar sands exploitation is not only impacting the quantity of water flowing out of the Athabasca River Basin, it is also having serious impacts on water quality. Studies have shown that tar sands mining, the tailing waste this mining generates, and the emissions emanating from upgraders, is leading to toxic air emissions that are depositing on snow and into lakes and streams that feed and make up the Athabasca River system. In some cases, water pollution from tar sands operations may be affecting the health of downstream indigenous communities where increased cancer rates are being observed. Similarly, wildlife that has traditionally been harvested by First Nations whose traditional territories are home to the tar sands industry is not only becoming contaminated, but is also dwindling. As this happens, the diets of First Nations communities are shifting, leading to other, previously unexperienced, health impacts.

In the face of concerning studies predicting an impending water crisis in the Athabasca River Basin, the Alberta government has a responsibility to reevaluate the water use licenses granted to the tar sands industry. As the government examines how best to do this, several initial steps are almost certainly necessary. At the outset, outreach to First Nations to share traditional knowledge about changes witnessed in the Athabasca basin will help Alberta not only understand the extent of the issue, but also ensure that future actions by government and industry honor the rights of First Nations to use and access the resources they have relied on for millennia. Further, long-range modeling that accounts for climate change-driven drought conditions should be used to set minimum flow rates while tar sands operators who enjoyed no prohibition on withdrawals this summer are brought into an updated system where such prohibitions would apply. In the end, if the tar sands industry hopes to continue operating--even at current levels--it must work with First Nations and the Government of Alberta to strive to achieve water use levels that will preserve the health of the Athabasca River for future generations.