High and Dry

Our water’s running low. Alberta’s government has a plan, but the oil sands just might suck us dry.

By Natalie St. Denis

Booming Alberta is headed for a dry awakening. The black gold that has made the province so prosperous may also lead to its demise. The burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible for global warming, causing wetlands to dry up and glaciers to melt. Alberta’s expansion of the oil and gas industry is putting a heavy strain on the province’s already limited water resources.

The Crisis

David Schindler is a leading environmental scientist based at the University of Alberta. “one of the main challenges we are facing,” he says, “is the need to readjust our thinking about the idea that we are rich in water. The fact is that we are a water- scarce part of the world.”

Dr. David Sauchyn, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Regina, agrees. According to his research, the favourable amount of precipitation experienced by Albertans over the last 100 years is misleading. By measuring the width of tree rings from 85 sites across the Canadian prairies, Sauchyn mapped out the precipitation patterns of the last 400 years. He discovered several 30-year periods in which half a dozen years were wet and the rest were dry. “So what prairie people have not experienced, unless they are Aboriginal, are these long periods of decades where nearly every year is dry,” Sauchyn says.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s glacial water sources are rapidly melting away. In a paper presented recently to the national Academy of Sciences of the United States, Schindler wrote that “most large glaciers in the headwaters of the Bow, Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers have shrunk by ~25 per cent in the last century… The termini of the Bow, Saskatchewan and Athabasca glaciers are now 1.5 kilometres or more upslope of their position in the early 20th century, and their masses are shrinking rapidly.”

Glaciers play an important role in providing a constant source of water to Albertans throughout the summer months. Acting as natural reservoirs, they hold twice as much snow as non-glaciated terrain. But as they shrink, they lose their ability to store snow and their ability to provide that much-needed water during the drier months.

“Most of the glaciers in the Canadian Rockies haven’t gained any mass since the 1970s and several have lost their snowpack,” says glaciologist and climatologist Dr. Shawn marshall at the University of Calgary. “If the snowpack completely melts away, that’s like the glacier is being decapitated—it’s no longer viable.” In recent studies, Marshall has found that Alberta’s overall snowpack over the last 15 years has decreased by 14 per cent compared to 20th century trends. “We may not have lost any of the overall precipitation, but rather than getting the same amount of snow in the winters, we are getting rain,” says Marshall. “The problem with rain is that it runs through the system much faster.”

One natural feature capable of storing water is wetlands. But according to Ducks Unlimited Canada, 70 per cent of the province’s wetlands have been destroyed by farming, industry and community development. “Wetlands act as big sponges and take up high water flows after a big snowmelt or rainstorm. This way, the water slowly trickles into the ground,” says Schindler. “But once you’ve removed the wetlands, all of that water hits the river at once…. Wetlands have an important connection between surface water and groundwater, and how they interrelate is just as important.”

According to Schindler, the ongoing effect “of global warming, increase in human populations and industry, and historic drought is likely to cause an unprecedented water crisis in Canada’s western prairie provinces.” The big question is when. “Time is not on our side,” Schindler warns. “We have some urgent problems right now, and they are increasing very rapidly.”

The solution

Alberta’s government hasn’t turned a blind eye to the impending crisis. Commendably, it initiated the Water for Life strategy in 2003, under the leadership of then-Environment minister Lorne Taylor. According to Schindler, at this point the strategy “is nothing more than a very thorough checklist. But like most things that look good on paper, how it’s implemented is going to tell what it’s really worth.”

To monitor and guide that implementation, the government established the Alberta Water Council in 2004. Comprised of 25 members from governments, industry and non-governmental organizations, the council’s main task is to monitor and guide the implementation of the Water for Life strategy. It currently reports directly to the minister of Environment but is in the process of becoming an independent entity.

In the fall of 2006, the government announced a $30-million investment to implement a water research strategy, developed by the Alberta Science & Research Authority, that focuses on safe drinking water, efficient water use and healthy watersheds. The newly created Alberta Water Research Institute (AWRI), operated by Alberta Ingenuity, will allocate funding to researchers and other key partners. Schindler was named chair of the AWRI’s international research advisory council. “The reason I agreed to be chair is that every day I work on water problems and I see what is going on,” he says. “We really have to get down to business.”

The management board of the AWRI is chaired by Lorne Taylor. “We don’t want to see just academic-driven science,” he says. “We want to see partnerships with a basin council, or the private sector, or even a government department, or a combination of those. If we have these partnerships, we’ll make sure that the knowledge that is being generated is useful.” one impediment to developing and implementing innovative policies is the communication gap between researchers and policy makers. “We need a trusted knowledge broker, someone in between scientists and politicians, and it has to be someone that politicians trust,” says Taylor. “Trust, vocabulary and who is passing the information will affect the decision-making process.” But, Taylor adds, “Sometimes political ideology or the effects on constituents trumps what the knowledge might say. That’s why it’s so important to be able to translate that knowledge in an effective way. That’s what our board has to do.”

Danielle Droitsch, executive director of Bow Riverkeeper, says it’s a familiar tune, demonstrating the government’s inability or unwillingness to fully appreciate how certain political decisions can negatively impact watersheds. “Too often good science is completely ignored by policy-makers,” she says.

Environment minister Rob Renner says he is prepared to take the necessary actions—when that time comes. “I found out that this job comes with a number of difficult decisions. And when consensus doesn’t work, at some point someone has to step in with some leadership and make those decisions. And I am prepared to do that,” he says. “But I want to be sure before those decisions are made that they are based on science and that the necessary partnerships and alliances are in place so that we can maximize the use of our resources.”

Droitsch counters that waiting for science to come up with all of the answers might take too long. “We cannot continue to use the excuse that we need more information before we can make decisions,” says Droitsch, who in addition to directing Bow Riverkeeper also serves on the Alberta Water Council. “There will never ever be a comprehensive set of data that will provide for a foolproof decision. That has always been the biggest flaw with environmental decision-making. We need to apply the precautionary principle… if we really want to protect something, we should make decisions now.”

The Quandary

Experts forecast that by 2020 Alberta’s oil sands production will have tripled its present rate of 1 million barrels per day. Currently, two to four barrels of water (sometimes more) is required to produce one barrel of in situ bitumen. Unless innovative technologies are devised in the very near future, the development of Alberta’s oil sands won’t be sustainable. There just won’t be enough water to meet targeted production, and Albertans will need that water simply to survive.

In February 2007, the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy released an evaluation of the Water for Life strategy. “In the management of Alberta’s economy,” it urged, “water should be viewed as being every bit as important as oil. Evolving water policy should be proactive in anticipating the needs and demands of a growing economy rather than simply providing reactive responses….”

Because federal and provincial governments are divided into various departments, many of which deal with water in one way or another, there are often gaps and perhaps even contradictions in how water issues are understood and managed.

Furthermore, governments don’t seem to have the ability or infrastructure to deal with complex problems that span many departments at once.

According to Schindler, “As problems arise, reactionary solutions are derived piecemeal, usually by different departments and levels of government, and too late for easy, inexpensive or timely remediation.”

Alberta’s water cycle and seasonal temperatures are part of a complex system that is intricately interwoven with the world’s climate patterns. Addressing water issues is far more challenging than simply buying a low-flush toilet or turning off the tap while you brush your teeth.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policymakers, published in February 2007, states that “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” Greenhouse gases include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone.

Using current technologies, oil sands developments are projected to be the largest single addition to Canada’s green- house gas emissions, producing 70 million tonnes a year by 2010. Recovery of bitumen in Alberta’s oil sands emits two to four times more greenhouse gases per barrel than conventional drilling for crude oil.

Environment Minister Renner says he plans to deal with climate change, “but that is a long-range plan,” he says. “If we shut off all sources of carbon dioxide today and turn to the days of practically living in caves, there would still be ongoing impact from climate change and global warming.” He’s right— but, as the Summary for Policymakers warns, “Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.”

“The only long-term solution is to cut greenhouse gases now— not in 2050,” says Schindler, noting that current projections for the Canadian prairies are forecasting a temperature increase of 6 to 8 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. But, as Schindler wrote in his national Academy of Sciences paper, “Controlling greenhouse gas emissions soon can reduce the amount of warming, and hence evaporation and glacial wastage, expected in the latter years of this century.”

One can only hope that Schindler’s new appointment to the Alberta Water Research Institute, combined with the work of it and other water advocacy groups, will help government officials better understand the complexities and urgency of Alberta’s looming water crisis.

The biggest challenge facing the government will be to confront the role of oil sands development in climate change and water depletion. The government must seriously consider which is more important: water or oil.

Natalie St-Denis’s writing has appeared in Canadian Geographic, Fast Forward Weekly and Reader’s Digest.

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