Research reveals water source concerns for oil sands development

By Costa Maragos Posted: September 22, 2015 11:00 a.m.

U of R Professor Dr. Dave Sauchyn shown here conducting his field research at the upper end of the Athabasca River.
U of R Professor Dr. Dave Sauchyn shown here conducting his field research at the upper end of the Athabasca River. Photo courtesy ofJakub Hacura.

The Athabasca oil sands, the world’s third largest oil reservoir, heavily rely on the Athabasca River Basin as its chief source of water.  But how secure is that water flow?

Research by Dr. Dave Sauchyn and Dr. Jeannine-Marie St. Jacques, both with the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) at the U of R, and Dr. Brian Luckman from the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario suggest the oil industry and government need to plan for extended periods of low water flow.
The research is published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,” one of the most cited scientific journals in the world.

“This journal receives more than 18,000 submissions in a year but publish only about 17 per cent,” says Dr. Sauchyn.
“Publishing in this journal gives wide exposure to our work. It also speaks to the quality of research done at PARC and at the U of R in general.”
The research team asked the question “how reliable is the Athabasca River Basin as a source of water given the major expansion of oil sands production that has occurred and is planned?”

The Alberta government and the oil sands industry have asked the same question.

However, Dr. Sauchyn says “their analysis is based on a fairly narrow analysis of the river, using measurements of river flow that are continuous only since 1952. The oil sands industry has existed only since 1967. Over these short time spans, river flow looks fairly steady and reliable.”

“Through a novel analysis of the river system, using tree-ring reconstruction and other methods, we were able to determine its water flows over the past 900 years,” says Dr. Sauchyn.

The research team has found that river levels have not only been declining over the past several decades but that flow over the past 900 years is much more variable than indicated by the guage records used over the past 60 years or so.

“Declining river flows means that the share used by the oil sands industry will be a larger proportion of the water. The oil sands industry has not been subjected to the long periods of low river flow that occurred many times in the past 900 years. When one of these prolonged droughts occurs in the future, it will be in a much warmer climate," says Dr. Sauchyn.

The research paper concludes that “industry and government agencies that regulate the use of surface water” may want to examine their options, including the implications of a period of sustained low-flow of water feeding the oil sands.

Such water concerns extend beyond the oil sands area. The paper says there are lessons here for the management of water supplies in other areas of western Canada.
The study, “Long-term reliability of the Athabasca River as the water source for oil sands mining” was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Engage Grant, Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, NSERC Discovery Grants and the Meteorological Survey of Canada.