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Ninety percent of rural households in Alberta – or about 600,000 people – rely on groundwater for drinking water.

The earth’s water is constantly cycling through the earth’s atmosphere, surface, and sub-surface. Groundwater is water that is stored underground. Of the fresh water available globally, approximately 69 percent is stored in ice caps and glaciers; less than 1 percent is present as rivers, lakes, and wetlands; and the remaining 30 percent is stored as groundwater.

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    Groundwater plays a critical role in the hydrologic cycle. During dry periods throughout the year, groundwater gradually discharges into rivers, lakes, and wetlands to help maintain healthy aquatic environments. Groundwater is recharged (replenished) through precipitation. When we withdraw more groundwater than is naturally recharged through precipitation, we risk depleting the resource.

    Ghost Reservoir, Bow River

    Ghost Reservoir, Bow River (C. Olson)

    • Not all groundwater is fresh. Salt water exists not just in the oceans but also beneath fresh water supplies underground. Because the salt water is heavier, under normal conditions it stays underneath. But continuously overdrawing a well can lead to salt water intrusion.
    • Groundwater withdrawal can sometimes cause surface water to be drawn into an aquifer. As surface water is often poorer quality, it can then contaminate the groundwater.
    • Most groundwater extracted through wells comes either from local precipitation or from fossil water deposited hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Once extracted, fossil water is not replenished by precipitation – it is essentially used up.
    • In Oil and Troubled Waters (2003), Pembina Institute notes that some of Alberta’s wetlands depend on groundwater recharge from precipitation. When too much groundwater is withdrawn from an aquifer, the resulting lower water levels in wetlands “will eliminate or severely impact these areas, many of which serve as important habitat and are ecologically significant.”
    • Myriad land-use issues affect the quality and quantity of Alberta’s crucial groundwater supplies.
    • In the agricultural sector, application of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, as well as manure from intensive livestock operations, can all seep into groundwater supplies.
      • Much of Alberta’s groundwater travels along coal seams. Fracturing fluids used in coal bed methane extraction can make their way into groundwater. Because they are considered trade secrets, companies are not obliged to reveal the composition of the fracturing fluids they use. The methane itself can also be released into the groundwater. Following coal bed methane extraction in the summer of 2006, several rural residents complained that the level of methane in their water became so elevated they could light their water on fire.

    “In the entire water pollution problem, there is probably nothing more disturbing than the threat of widespread contamination of groundwater.… [P]ollution of the groundwater is pollution of water everywhere.”     Rachel Carson, 1962

    Despite our heavy reliance on it, we know very little about the quality and quantity of groundwater in this province. In 2005, the Canadian Senate reported that only 20 percent of Canada’s aquifers have been mapped and described the data as “pitiful.” In the February 2007 Rosenberg report, an international panel of experts convened by the Alberta government stated: “The existing network of groundwater monitoring is insufficient to provide reliable information on water quality and water levels and their variability.” They go on to say that “the development and projected exploitation of oil sands and coal bed methane are likely to pose special threats to both groundwater quantity and quality.”

    In the Water for Life strategy (2003), the provincial government identified the need to “understand the state of the quality and quantity of Alberta’s ground water supply,” but to date there has been little progress toward achieving this end.

    Issues of groundwater stress are beginning to emerge more frequently in Alberta. In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Taking Canada’s Groundwater for Granted” (Eau Canada, 2007), Linda Nowlin writes, “When the local groundwater resources were no longer able to meet the needs of a growing population in the Lacombe/Ponoka area of Alberta, a pipeline was built to allow for an interbasin transfer of the treated water. This area of central Alberta is a groundwater ‘hot spot,’ as are areas in northeast Alberta where there is demand for groundwater to produce steam for the thermal recovery of bitumen.”

    The Pembina Institute report Protecting Water, Producing Gas, released in April 2007, lists a number of groundwater issues that need addressing in the province:

    • In the early 1990s, approximately 400 wells were monitoring groundwater levels in Alberta. That number has been halved, while in Manitoba, where there is no oil and gas production, the province maintains approximately 600 groundwater monitoring wells.
    • Alberta’s 200 wells are concentrated in the settled area of the province. If they were distributed evenly across the province, there would be only one well for every 3,000 km2.
    • If knowledge of Alberta’s groundwater is not improved, groundwater could become over allocated and aquifers could become depleted and no longer able to provide a viable source of water.
    • Excessive withdrawals from groundwater can trigger unwanted hydro-chemical changes, leading to the requirement for expensive treatment for domestic use.
    • Very large volumes of saline water and other forms of waste from drilling, exploration, and production have been injected into deep saline aquifers for many years. If these aquifers are not deep enough or are in communication with non-saline aquifers, contamination of fresh groundwater could occur.

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We have spectacular wilderness in Alberta, much of it under some form of protection. Every square millimetre of it has had to be fought for - will always have to be fought for, forever and ever. The struggle to retain and repair wilderness is conducted not just by a few individuals, but by large numbers of committed people, from all walks of life, all working in various ways toward the same end. We need to be grateful to all of them.
- Dave Mayhood
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