Is there enough water in the Athabasca River?

by Ashley on October 15, 2015 - 2:03pm

The Athabasca River has supplied oil industries with water for many decades. The article “Oilsands may face severe water shortages, Athabasca River study” by Emily Chung from CBC News, discusses the arising issue that the water levels in the Athabasca River are depleting due to the oil industry’s level of water use. To produce one barrel of crude oil, over three barrels of fresh water is needed. David Sauchyn, a researcher from the University of Regina, discovered that the government’s method of regulating water to the oil industries-measuring the water flow-don’t cover the river’s behaviour in long-term aspects. Instead, Sauchyn used tree rings to learn there are previous droughts in the area that have lasted decades. This is determined by the size of the tree rings; when they are thin, there was a shortage of sunlight, nutrients, heat, or water during that period of time.

The Alberta Energy Regulator has regulations to restrict water use when there are low levels of water; these regulations are only in the northern area of the Athabasca region. The Alberta Energy Regulator also states that most of the water the oil sands use is recycled.

What this article doesn’t mention, is the amount of ground water that is also being used and that is not dispersed into the Athabasca River. The ecosystem only has so much resilience before it will alter its pattern. The river might provide only 100 more barrels of water, or it could provide 1 billion barrels before it is affected. It is hard to predict the future, and this uncertainty drives people crazy.

Water is a flow resource, meaning it is renewable. The rate of extraction is relative to the rate of regeneration, meaning that if the resource is over-exploited then it can become a stock resource, having a limited quantity before its eternal disappearance. A really important point people have to understand-that Chung didn’t discuss-is that the economy and the environment are intertwined. The management of resources directly effects the well-being of the state. Right now, Canada is thriving off of the money the oil sands are producing. When (or if) their water sources are diminished, there will be no more oil. If they do not find another way to extract the oil without using as much water, then Canada’s economy will be at risk. These companies can only recycle the water a couple of times, and then it is unusable and also untreatable. In the end, the oil industry is attempting to reduce its water consumption, but at what means is this happening? Will they find an alternative before running out of water?