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Oil sands, world’s largest energy project, faces severe water shortages

The oil sands, the world’s largest energy project, will face severe or even catastrophic water shortages due to declining glaciers and snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, warn Canadian water researchers.

Using water level records over a 5,200 year period cored from sediment in Lake Athabasca, Canada’s ninth largest lake, several Canadian geographers have concluded that settlement in western Canada took place during a period of abundant water supplies topped up by water banks created by growing glaciers.

But those glacial banks are now depleted and future water availability in the region, which now supports $200-billion worth of water-intensive bitumen production, could be in jeopardy.

“We must now prepare for water shortages of duration and magnitude not evident in hydrometric records or our collective awareness,” says Brent Wolfe, one of the researchers and NSERC Northern Research Chair at Wilfred Laurier’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

William Donahue, policy advisor to Water Matters, a non-profit Alberta water watchdog, calls the findings highly significant.

“We have a province built on a trajectory of economic growth and all the water that growth entails and yet the source is drying up. This is the most important issue in Alberta.”

Canada’s oil sands industry now depends on surface water (12 barrels per barrel of bitumen) that originates in the Rockies and flows down the mighty Athabasca River into Lake Athabasca.

Water allocations in the Athabasca River Basin have grown nine times faster than provincial average since 2000 and the oil industry now accounts for 65 percent of the water taken out of the system.

Given that forecast demand by the oil sands industry could increase by 165 percent by 2025, the scientists warn that the project’s spectacular growth “will increasingly challenge decision-makers to manage this resource appropriately to ensure that impacts to downstream ecosystems are minimized.”

The study found that water levels in Lake Athabasca reached their highest between 1600 and 1900 and dropped dramatically to their lowest levels (two to four metres) nearly 5,000 years ago. The fall and rise in lake water levels all corresponded with the growth or retreat of glaciers and snowpack in the Rocky Mountains.

Most alarmingly the data also show “that the transition from water abundance to scarcity can occur within a human lifespan, which is a very short amount of time for societies to adapt.”

“Our findings suggest that predictions made by decision-makers and planners in government and industry—based entirely on inadequate, short instrumental records—will grossly underestimate how rapid and severe the impending water scarcity will be,” says Tom Edwards, professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences in a press release.

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning author and journalist, and a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read his previous Tyee stories here.

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