Join us!
Donate Now!
Learn How
Learn How

Water Mismanagement in Alberta: How We Got Here

March 29, 2024

Across over 300 square kilometres in northern Alberta, 1.6 trillion litres of tailings sit, seeping into the soil and leaking into the watershed.

Peace River ©C. Wearmouth

By Kennedy Halvorson

There are two instances since joining AWA where I have been truly dumbfounded. Both were about water.

Last August, my colleague Phillip Meintzer was out of town so I attended an engagement session held by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) on his behalf. The session was focused on a draft document lengthily titled “Introduction to the Crown-Indigenous Working Group (CIWG) for the Potential Oil Sands Mining Effluent Regulations.” Mining effluent, the lesser-known synonym for tailings, are slurries of heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and other undesirable substances that are byproducts of extraction.

I had known about oilsands, tailing ponds, and their hazards in a general sense, but I feel (maybe on purpose) their sheer size and expanse are not widely publicized knowledge.

Across over 300 square kilometres in northern Alberta, 1.6 trillion litres of tailings sit, seeping into the soil and leaking into the watershed. That surface area would span the city of Vancouver more than twice, the volume would overflow Abraham Lake, Alberta’s largest reservoir.

It wasn’t the size or sheer amount of waste that really shocked me; it was the revelation that they had no idea how to deal with it. Nothing could have prepared me to learn that more than half of a century of oilsands production has been permitted by our government, our elected officials and ministries signing off on development that never had a more comprehensive reclamation plan than the optimistic promise that they will eventually figure it out.

They haven’t figured it out.

They haven’t innovated their way out of the problem. Without a solution, the oilsands companies have since been pressuring the government to allow for the controlled release of “treated” tailings into the Athabasca River, upstream of over 150,000 people. If treatment were effective or possible, it’s inexplicable why the oilsands wouldn’t already be doing it to use the recycled water in their processes.

That pressure from industry is working, as the government’s engagement session was attempted to gauge what would be necessary to develop potential tailings regulations.

More recently in December, I again found myself left at a loss while attending an event hosted by the Bow River Basin Council. The final presentation of the day — following promising talks on native trout habitat restoration, advancements in sustainable farming solutions, and plans to host a Bow River canoeing pageant — was focused on Alberta’s drought and risk management plan.

The number of water advisories and the severity of shortages has been increasing across the province. Some regions, particularly in southern Alberta, are going on three years of drought conditions. This has prompted Alberta to progress to Stage 4 of their five-step water shortage management plan, one stage short of declaring a province-wide emergency under the Water Act.

Stage 5 gives the province additional legislative powers to suspend nonessential water use and prioritize where it is allocated, to maintain the health and safety of humans and aquatic environments. Given the precarious state currently facing Alberta’s watersheds, it’s hard to understand the hesitancy to declare Stage 5 and treat this crisis with the urgency required.

With the warm, dry trends of preceding months forecasted to continue well into 2024, the prospect of worsening conditions raised an important question to the Environment and Protected Areas representatives present: what is the government doing to prepare, and what triggers Stage 5?

There are no triggers. There are no explicit threshold conditions the province could cross that indicate an emergency declaration is necessary. The government will, essentially, “know when they know.” Further, their Stage 4 preparations amount to convening with the largest licence holders (irrigation districts, industry, and municipalities) and asking them that should the time come, they manage their water allocations to prioritize human and environmental health and safety. Their other strategy is to

“Hope for snow and rain” – AEPA, November 2023.

The connection between these anecdotes is Alberta’s commitment to reactionary strategies over proactive solutions when it comes to water protection and conservation. When I say I am dumbfounded, it is because when afforded opportunities to prepare and plan, the province is squandering time and the expertise they employ. I am dumbfounded at what amounts to decades of complicity, where inaction has permitted the quality, quantity, and resilience of our watersheds to continuously be degraded. Dumbfounded because these are no small stakes to be gambling on.

Water is Life

Stored naturally in lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands, in the soil and as groundwater, and in man-made structures like reservoirs and dugouts, water is essential to every process. It is inextricably connected to all things, which makes the protection and perseveration of water all the more vital.

In Alberta, water finds itself pulled in many different directions. Without thoughtful management and due care, we can and have inappropriately allocated and overburdened our watersheds, throwing the natural rhythm of the hydrological system out of balance and threatening the very services water provides.

The equilibrium begins on already unsteady ground considering 80 percent of Alberta’s water supply is concentrated in the northern half of the province, while 80 percent of demand is in the south. The majority of water in Alberta is taken from surface sources like lakes, rivers, and streams, with just under four percent of licensed volumes coming from the ground.

Removing large volumes of water that would otherwise be in the watersheds has serious impacts on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. If rivers’ natural flows are diverted, for example, it can reduce the overall volume of the river. This can affect its ability to dilute or accommodate inputs like nutrients, sediment, and other potential pollutants, which in turn affects water chemistry, and can mean changes in temperature, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen.

Diverting a river’s natural flow can also decrease the river’s depth, which can expose riverbanks to erosion, increase evaporation, and make the habitat unsuitable for the needs (movement, breeding, reproduction) of fish and other aquatic animals. This disrupts the overall ecosystem function.

It may also result in changes to channel characteristics (shape, speed, width), which can alter the hydrology of a region and result in shifts and losses of associated ecosystems, like riparian habitat.

These examples show why water allocation and use should be informed first and foremost by the needs of the watersheds so that their function and health are prioritized. Three concepts are key to understanding how the province allocates water. The first, natural flow, describes the water that would be there without human influence, i.e. no diversions, storage, export, or import, impacts of any kind. The next is instream flow needs, which is the quantity, quality, and timing of water flow necessary to preserve and protect the function and processes of healthy, diverse ecosystems long-term. Water conservation objectives are targets set by the government to mark the minimum volume and quality of water that should remain in rivers under the first-in-time, first-in-right (FITFIR) priority water allocation system.

A simplified visualization of the Natural Flow, Instream Flow Needs (IFN), and Water Conservation Objectives (WCOs) in a watershed. Base image from Flylords Mag

In a just and sustainable system, water management would allocate water to ensure the instream flow needs of our river basins are always being met. However, in Alberta many of our major watersheds have been overallocated to the point that we often do not even hit our water conservation objectives, which means we are consistently jeopardizing the viability of our aquatic ecosystems.

Water Allocations, Uses, and Pressures

According to the most recently available provincial data, Alberta has allocated over 9.5 billion cubic metres for annual use. The agricultural sector — 12 irrigation districts to be specific — holds the majority of water allocations in Alberta and has the oldest water licences.

This doesn’t just mean bragging rights. Under the province’s FITFIR legislation, the most senior licences have priority to withdraw the entirety of their allocation first, regardless of purpose.

As of 2023, nearly half of all water allocated in the province (about 45 percent or almost 4.3 billion cubic metres of water) is for irrigation. Commercial and industrial cooling processes are allotted 1.6 billion cubic metres (about 17 percent) of water. Municipalities (1.1 billion cubic metres, 12 percent), and oil, gas, and other related industries (0.9 billion cubic metres, 12 percent) are the next largest licensees. Altogether, water for habitat, fish and wildlife, and water management receive just over five percent of all allocations.

Comparing water allocation volumes in 2009 and 2020 in Alberta. Based on the latest data available from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas Water Policy Divison.

Since 2009, the overall volume of water allocated has decreased by around four percent. This is owed largely to substantial reductions in water allocated for cooling. However, water for habitat has faced the largest proportional decrease — down by 61 percent since 2009. While it is not specifically defined which licences constitute each category, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act’s Water Policy Division says that water allocated to projects from organizations like Ducks Unlimited would be an example that falls under habitat.

Other sectors have had increases in their allocated volumes, including irrigation, municipalities, commercial, and fish and wildlife among others. The greatest increases in water allocation were for oil and gas (up by 43.6 percent) and drilling/fracturing (up by 80.4 percent).

The proportion of water allocated is different from the volume of water actually used annually for each purpose. For example, Statistics Canada reported that in 2022, 1.6 billion cubic metres of water was used to irrigate in Alberta, consuming 17 percent of the province’s total allocations. Data on water use by sector is not readily available from the province, which makes it difficult to understand what proportion of the allocations are being used and how much water remains in the environment year-to-year.

Further, while it’s important to track what amount is allocated and how much is actually used, the quality of the water that remains must also be taken into consideration. This further complicates water-use planning and management. Leaving water in rivers, streams, and on the landscape does no good if the water is too contaminated to sustain ecosystems and support human health.

Percent change in water allocations between 2009 and 2020 in Alberta. Based on latest data available from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas Water Policy Division.

The impacts of anthropogenic water use are varied, complex, and cumulative. The eutrophication (when nutrients accumulate in a water body causing microorganisms like algae to grow), salination, sedimentation, and pollution of streams and rivers are commonly due to the run-off or waste from industrial and agricultural activities or human settlements. The wastewater tailings produced in mining, oil, and gas operations create an ever-present hazard on the landscape, as heavy metals and toxic chemicals threaten to leach into the surrounding environment and connected watersheds. Linear disturbances like roads, railways, bridges, dams, and culverts intersect numerous waterbodies, which can introduce contaminants and invasive species and impact the movement of aquatic species.

Along with changing the topography and composition of waterbodies, human activity also can impact the long-term ability of watersheds to retain and store water. Alberta’s ecosystems have adapted with the climate for millennia; they are accustomed to the seasonal changes in precipitation, and can effectively store, filter, and distribute water throughout the year. So, when our forests are clearcut for logging, wetlands removed for development, or native grasslands converted for crops, it impacts how water will exist on the landscape. Without careful planning and management, our water use can severely harm or even destroy the ability of ecosystems to provide essential services we depend on.

The human pressures on a watershed are diverse, complex, and cumulative. Image expanded from the Alberta Environment South Saskatchewan River Basin Planning Program Summary Document, pg. 27, 1984.

These ecosystems also help mitigate the worst impacts of natural disasters — robust forests and riparian habitats slow spring floods and summer wildfires, prairies are drought resilient and fire-adapted, the roots of all these ecosystems protect against soil erosion, this list goes on and on. And in the wake of climate change, which increases both the severity and unpredictability of natural disasters, these buffering effects are more vital than ever.

We cannot continue reacting when the reduced availability and quality of water in our ecosystems represent real-time threats to human health. We must ask difficult questions; is it appropriate to farm water-intense, low-nutrition-value crops like canola in our arid prairies? Why do we build sprawling, car-dependent cities of concrete that increase evapotranspiration and prevent groundwater storage? Do we need to remove the habitat-providing, native vegetation in our greenspaces, only to be replaced by ecologically sterile Kentucky bluegrass that constantly needs watering? Should we allow mines and oilsands to pollute water beyond recovery? How can we permit their continued threat to the headwaters and major tributaries that supply freshwater to all Albertans?

Truly, what are we doing?  

With the summer of 2024 promising to be drier than the last, we must seriously question how water is allocated and used in the province to ensure we continue to have clean freshwater and resilient ecosystems for generations to come. We must use existing legislative tools, like the Alberta Land Stewardship and Water Acts, and develop new ones where water protection is inadequate or ineffective.

We must hold our government and regulators to account, demanding they fulfill their mandates to protect Albertans and the environment. If they cannot, we must replace those unfit to lead and the systems that no longer serve us. We must challenge unlimited growth and resource use narratives and listen to the Indigenous peoples who have long-known reciprocity with this land. We must reflect on the Alberta we want to live in now and leave as our legacy.

© 1965 - 2024, Alberta Wilderness Association. | Disclaimer | Privacy Policy | Federally Registered Charity Number 118781251RR0001 Website design by Build Studio
Save Your Cart
Share Your Cart