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Set limits on oil sands water use: DFO report

Without clear limits on water use, oil sands operations could damage aquatic life in northern Alberta, a federal government agency has noted.

“A flow should be established for the Lower Athabasca River below which there would be no water withdrawal,” reads a recent report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Clear benchmarks, it predicts, would “preserve ecosystem function” and “limit harm to fish and fish habitat” on one of Canada’s most ecologically important rivers.

Water usage has long been a contentious issue in Alberta’s oil sands. Mining operations require anywhere from two to four barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen, environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute estimate.

Green observers argue that huge water withdrawals during low-flow periods – particularly during the winter – threaten aquatic ecosystems. The DFO’s recent report does not constitute government policy, but could set a precedent.

"The cumulative pressures on Canada's rivers are increasing and there's a need to protect flows of rivers in order to sustain the ecosystems we rely on,” said Tony Maas, Director of WWF-Canada's Freshwater Program, in a press release. “DFO's recommendation is encouraging and should be the start of a shift on how we manage river flows across the country."

The Alberta government recently appointed a team of scientists to study water pollution in the Athabasca River -- and the federal government has done the same.

Pictures of deformed fish gained international attention last month.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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