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Our Challenge

Water is required for all Fossil Fuel production -- oil sands operations are no different. Maintaining good water quality and ensuring more efficient and limited use of fresh water is one of the most important challenges that must be met in the oil sands sector.

Our Actions

To ensure environmental impacts are avoided or mitigated, we are constantly improving our comprehensive laws and policies and innovating research and industrial practices. Independent and co-operative monitoring efforts - by government, industry, and stakeholder groups - are also being enhanced.

View/download Water as a PDF.

Water Use

The Athabasca River is a source of fresh water withdrawals in the oil sands region.The current cumulative withdrawal rate of oil sands projects is less than one per cent of the long-term average annual flow of the Athabasca River, and less than three per cent of the long-term average winter flow during January to March.

Oil sands projects recycle 80 to 95 per cent of water used.

Water use per barrel is comparable to other energy resources; about 2.5 barrels of fresh water per barrel of oil produced is used by mining operations and 0.5 barrels for in situ operations.

Fresh water use by mature oil sands mining operations is similar to the use in the 1980s and 90s, despite significant increases in production.

In situ operators use deep saline acquifers as an alternative to fresh water wherever possible.

An updated Surface Water Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan was recently developed through stakeholder engagement. The Government of Alberta will pursue one last round of stakeholder engagement, prior to finalization and implementation of this framework.

Water Management

A stringent provincial regulatory system governs water withdrawals and any wastewater releases into rivers in Alberta.

Building on this system, regional environmental management frameworks are in place to help manage the cumulative effects of oil sands and other development within the Lower Athabasca Region.

The Athabasca River Water Management Framework sets mandatory limits on withdrawals that maintain flows near natural conditions.

To protect local habitats, the framework puts a weekly cap on the amount of water companies can withdraw according to the fluctuating flow of the river.

To protect the water quality of regional aquifers and the lower Athabasca River, management frameworks were also developed for surface water quality and groundwater as part of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan.

The groundwater management framework commits to the development of a regional groundwater monitoring network and sets interim regional groundwater quality triggers for key indicators.

To protect aquatic life and other surface water quality uses, the surface water quality management framework sets ambient limits and triggers for a suite of indicators. A management response is required if these triggers or limits are exceeded.

Current monitoring

Alberta has monitored water quality in the oil sands region since the early 1970s.

Water flow in the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray has been monitored by Water Survey Canada (a division of Environment Canada) since 1957.

Today, water monitoring has expanded to include staff who monitor, approve and ensure compliance of projects as well as consultants and multi-stakeholder groups that continuously assess water quality.

The Alberta government monitors in a number of ways:

  • continually monitoring the Athabasca River and its tributaries at 11 sites throughout the oil sands region;
  • auditing the monitoring data that oil sands operators are legally required to provide; and 
  • participating in local and regional multi-stakeholder monitoring efforts and the current partnership agreement with Water Survey Canada to monitor water flow and levels. 

The Athabasca River has always had measurable levels of naturally-ocurring contaminants. This is because bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks seeps naturally into the Athabasca River as it cuts through the landscape.

Nevertheless, industrial sources of these contaminants also exist and are being managed.

Comprehensive water quality monitoring and management ensures that natural and human sources of contaminants do not compormise the water quality of the river and its suitabiliy to support a variety of human and ecological needs.

Monitoring in the future

Early in 2012, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and Canada’s Environment Minister announced The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.

With this plan, the governments are taking unprecedented steps to enhance the oil sands monitoring program for air, land, water and biodiversity. The plan, which will be fully operational by 2015, improves our ability to detect changes in the environment and manage the cumulative impacts of development.

The provincial government's former contaminant load study has been transitioned into this joint monitoring plan.

More sites will be monitored to increase overall geographic coverage, sampling will be more frequent, and more substances will be monitored – increasing sensitivity and limits of detection for a broad suite of compounds related to oil sands activities. Sediment monitoring is included along with a more integrated approach to aquatic ecosystems monitoring.

As the joint plan is implemented, the Government of Alberta and Government of Canada will continue to engage with stakeholders to ensure continued awareness of the process and to ensure that advice is incorporated on an ongoing basis.