Canadian Consulting Engineer

Scientists find Alberta oilsands threaten Athabasca River

May 17, 2007
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

A report by the University of Alberta's Environmental Research and Studies Centre confirms concerns that the oils s...

A report by the University of Alberta’s Environmental Research and Studies Centre confirms concerns that the oils sands’ use of water combined with the effect of global warming is threatening the health of the Athabasca River system.
Dr. David Schindler and two research colleagues at the university announced the results of their research at a meeting on May 11. The meeting was attended by scientists, First Nations and local government officials. Schindler said he was disappointed that executives from the oilsands industries chose not to attend.
Schindler’s report is entitled “Running out of Steam? Oil Sands Development and Water Use in the Athabasca River Watershed: Science and Market based Solutions.”
The report’s preamble notes that Alberta’s oil sands are the world’s largest capital project and represent 60 per cent of the world’s “investable” oil reserves. It notes that with planned expansions, by 2015 the oils sands production may total three million barrels a day. “At that point,” say the authors, “It will be too late to address the impacts of rapid energy development on water scarcity or to responsibly consider options.”
The oilsands’ use of water is immense: “To produce one million barrels of oil a day, industry requires withdrawals of enough water from the Athabasca River to sustain a city of two million people every year. Despite some recycling, the majority of this water never returns to the river and is pumped into some of the world’s largest man-made dykes containing toxic waste.”
The research was commissioned as a response to earlier reports that raised concerns about the voracious appetite of the oilsands for water, including a 2006 Alberta report called “Investing in Our Future.” The latest research by Dr. Schindler and other experts, was “to assess the implications of current and planned water withdrawals from the Athabasca River and options for water management.”
Following are from the report’s summary of findings (page 11):
“Average summer and winter low flows of the Athabasca River have declined for over 30 years as a result of climate warming and decreased snow. Runoff has decreased by 50% in the 93.7% of the Athabasca Basin that is downstream of the Rocky Mountains. Flows have also declined in the Peace and Slave Rivers.
“The recently proposed Phase 1 Water Management Framework is inadequate to protect the Athabasca River System. It does not ensure flooding of side channels and delta lakes that are critical spawning and nursery habitats for fish and other organisms at high flow…. It also offers no measures for protection of the large Delta wetland ecosystem and its great diversity of plants and animals. It does not account for the effects of climate warming
“At present, data on instream flow needs are insufficient to allow construction of a plan that would protect the river system.
“Projected bitumen extraction in the oil sands will require too much water to sustain the river and Athabasca Delta, especially with the effects of predicted climate warming. Water levels in Lake Athabasca and flows in the Slave River will likely continue to decrease.
“To protect water resources and fisheries, and sustain aboriginal lifestyles in the lower Athabasca River and downstream, measures must be taken to reduce consumptive water use, and gain knowledge necessary to produce an effective, protective, science-based water management plan.”
Several large consulting engineering firms are involved in the oil sands projects.



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