In Decline

What are we doing to our aquifers?

By Kevin Van Tighem

We didn’t hike on trails to our fishing streams back in the 1960s. We followed cutlines. There were more of them every year. Oil companies would set off explosives along the bulldozed lines and use the seismic echoes to map the underlying rocks.
It was along one such cutline that I encountered my first artesian spring. Dad stopped abruptly to keep from stepping into a marsh that had not been there two weeks earlier. Water had spread across the cutline from a growing pool in the forest. A small fountain burbled out of one corner.

“Where’s that water coming from?” I asked. I was thinking about Yellowstone and geysers. “The seismic crew must have opened up an artesian spring,” Dad replied. “It’s underground water coming up.”

By the following summer our cutline was blocked by a small lake full of dead trees.
Dad couldn’t tell me where that newly freed groundwater originated. He didn’t know. The drilling crew didn’t know either. The government didn’t know. It’s entirely possible we still don’t know.

We should. Groundwater is going to be a lot more important in our future than it was in my childhood. Out of sight and too often out of mind, underground aquifers keep rivers flowing, provide drinkable water, irrigate farm gardens and feedlots and provide injection water for extracting oil and natural gas. Almost a quarter of Alberta’s population relies on wells for their drinking water, including up to 90 per cent of rural residents. We treat this hidden supply as if it will always be abundant, pure and available.

It may not be. As Alberta begins to depend more and more on groundwater, we need to keep better track of how much we’re using, how well the supply is being renewed, and the extent to which leaking oil and gas wells, fracking and surface pollution are depleting and contaminating this vital resource down below. We know far less about Alberta’s groundwater than we need to, even though almost everything we do affects its abundance, quality and availability.

Compared to most other Canadian provinces, Alberta is water-scarce, especially in the southern half, where most of us live. River flows have been declining—the combined natural flow of the Bow and Oldman rivers has diminished to about 90 per cent of what it was half a century ago—even as the region’s population has tripled. Two-thirds of Canada’s irrigated agriculture, a major water consumer, is in the Bow and Oldman basins. Farther north, oil sands extraction has become a major water consumer; it may eventually permanently remove more than a tenth of the Athabasca River’s annual flow.

Water security may be Alberta’s biggest long-term challenge—economic, social and environmental. In 2003, after many years of reacting to various challenges as they arose, the Alberta government moved to a more proactive stance with its Water for Life strategy, which aims to provide Albertans with a safe, secure drinking water supply and healthy aquatic ecosystems while ensuring that scarcity of this precious resource doesn’t limit our economic well-being.

Most of Alberta’s water has traditionally been drawn from streams and lakes. The stuff on the surface is easy to find and develop. It’s also well mapped and easily measured. It’s only in recent decades that wells have become an important part of our water supply. Groundwater records, consequently, rarely extend back beyond the 1960s.

University of Saskatchewan researcher Cesar Perez-Valdivia found a way to extend the local record farther into the past. He analyzed 33 groundwater wells across the prairie provinces and then cross-correlated their records with tree-ring chronologies to trace changes over 300 years. He found that Alberta’s groundwater levels have been stable or gradually declining in most regions.

A model developed for Alberta Environment and Parks estimates that, in an average year, almost six million Olympic-sized swimming pools of water drain into Alberta’s aquifers and the equivalent amount drains out of them into rivers and lakes. That’s a simplified picture; the amount varies each year with precipitation and evaporation rates, which are not the same from one part of the province to another.

As our province’s surface water supplies are increasingly taxed, we’re making bigger withdrawals from our groundwater.

Along the gravel-bed rivers that drain the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, groundwater is constantly welling up to become river water, and river water draining through the streambed to become groundwater. Calgary researchers Leanne Cantafio and Cathryn Ryan studied the Elbow River in Calgary and found that every second of the day, 20 litres of water per kilometre moves from the river into the ground or back again.

Deeper bedrock aquifers are the most abundant, and least understood, of Alberta’s groundwater resource. The artesian spring that the seismic crew released near our secret trout stream all those years ago was likely from a confined bedrock aquifer.

In 2006, to put more meat on the bones of its Water for Life strategy, Alberta Environment asked The Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy for advice. Based at the University of California, the biennial forum brings scientists and policymakers together to create smart guidelines. The Rosenberg Forum assembled an expert panel to review Alberta’s water management, identify weaknesses and make recommendations to strengthen it. Government officials specifically asked the panel to review Alberta’s groundwater management and suggest improvements.

Their 2007 report recommended that surface watersheds and aquifer systems be considered together when managing either, because of the intimate connections between water recharge from the land and water transfer through aquifers. It also identified a critical weakness: a lack of good monitoring programs and inventories of groundwater aquifers and the demands being placed on them. “Previous practices of groundwater monitoring and management,” the Rosenberg report’s authors wrote, “were appropriate to an era in which groundwater was a relatively minor source of supply in most areas. These practices will not be adequate in an era of intensifying pressure to develop groundwater resources.”

A year later Alberta launched its first Provincial Groundwater Inventory Program. Coordinated jointly by Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Geological Survey, the program aims to map and measure fresh groundwater supplies across the province.

The only such inventory completed to date is the Edmonton–Calgary Corridor Groundwater Atlas (2011), which describes all the usable groundwater resources in a 49,500 km2 area centred on the Highway 2 corridor between Calgary and Edmonton. As other regional inventories are completed, the government will finally be able to identify critical recharge areas that need to be protected and can predict how much water can safely be withdrawn from various aquifers.

As Alberta plays catch-up with inventory and analysis, our ability to anticipate and avoid water security challenges will improve. In some cases, though, the horse is already out of the barn. We are already dealing with serious challenges—depletion of local aquifers, loss of groundwater recharge and contamination of those precious hidden reservoirs.

Big cities such as Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge quench their thirst by drawing from rivers, but many smaller communities rely on wells. Banff, Canmore and Okotoks pump groundwater from wells drilled into alluvial aquifers beneath their local rivers. Other towns, such as St. Albert, Stony Plain, Bon Accord, Westlock and Vermilion, draw from aquifers that originate largely as rain and snowmelt draining into local hill systems and wetlands.

Even where a town’s supply is closely tied to a river, it can be limited. The entire surface water supply of the Bow and Oldman drainages has already been allocated to current and future uses; as a result, the province has had a moratorium on new water licences in the basin since 2006. It’s not just the rivers that are tapped out; the surface zones of their associated alluvial aquifers are too. That’s why Okotoks was caught in a region-wide freeze on new water licences; any further pumping would actually start drawing down the Sheep River. The town plans to pipe water in from Calgary for future needs.

Even where groundwater supplies are recharged only by a region’s precipitation and don’t affect the flow of nearby streams, aquifers can get badly depleted. The town of Irricana got a licence in the early 1980s to draw from an aquifer that regulators assumed would easily meet a growing population’s needs. By 2005 the level in the town well had dropped 12 metres; the aquifer was sucked nearly dry. The town ceased pumping and instead built a pipeline to bring treated river water in from Drumheller. A decade later, Irricana’s groundwater well is still more than four metres below its original level.

Masaki Hayashi likens groundwater to a chequing account. A physical hydrologist at the University of Calgary, Hayashi says that as surface water supplies become increasingly taxed, Alberta is going to start making bigger withdrawals from its aquifers. If we take water out faster than the aquifer refills, the balance drops and eventually we end up overdrawn. Unlike a real bank, however, aquifers don’t offer overdraft protection.

There are two possible reasons for a shrinking bank account: too many withdrawals or not enough deposits. Where groundwater is concerned, depositing less is clearly a bad idea. But that is what is happening with some of Alberta’s aquifers.

Groundwater originates as snowmelt and rain. It gets recharged pretty much anywhere that surface water goes into the ground, but areas of lush vegetation and porous soils are particularly important for moving surface water into aquifers. Land uses that increase runoff—such as compacting the soil under roads and urban development or breaking up vegetation cover with clear-cut logging, off-road recreation or heavy livestock grazing—reduces the amount of water deposited into Alberta’s underground accounts each year.

University of Calgary geohydrologist Cathy Ryan has taken a special interest in the Elbow River, which she describes as the only river in the world whose primary end use is to provide municipal water for a large city. Her research program has shown that almost all the flow in the Elbow originates in the Rocky Mountains. The entire alluvial aquifer under that river, and other connected aquifers, depends on a porous, well-vegetated landscape upstream from Bragg Creek. Industrial-scale logging and a network of hardened roads and off-highway vehicle trails, however, divert much of the potential groundwater recharge overland into the river each spring. Instead of replenishing aquifers, the lost runoff feeds increasingly severe river floods.

Farther north, in a 2009 report for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, Morris Maccagno and João Küpper came to a similar conclusion. They believe that land use decisions that reduce groundwater recharge could diminish the North Saskatchewan drainage’s most important alluvial and bedrock aquifers. “The dynamics of regional groundwater recharge in the Rocky Mountains and Foothills,” they wrote, “should be characterized in terms of contributions to baseflow in the headwaters and to regional flow in the Paskapoo aquifer system, as well as the sensitivities of regional groundwater flow to the effects of forestry practices, land-use change and climate change in the headwaters.”

Hayashi stresses, however, that land use in the forested headwaters of Alberta’s major rivers has little impact on most Alberta water wells. Most farm and town wells across central and eastern Alberta draw from shallow aquifers whose recharge areas are less than 100 km away. Mapping, and then protecting, those critical recharge areas is essential because these small, localized aquifers have little ability to buffer any loss in supply. They are also more vulnerable to pollution.

When most Albertans hear about water pollution, we tend to think of the oilsands region northeast of Edmonton. Groundwater pollution is indeed a growing problem there. The water table is very near the surface across much of the Athabasca drainage; it’s difficult to dig a pit without encountering water that connects underground to nearby lakes, rivers, wetlands and aquifers. Toxic wastes abound in the region’s nearly 200 km2 of tailings ponds. Modelling studies have estimated that as much as 6.5 million litres can leak daily from some of those ponds. While most contamination studies have focused on the Athabasca River, the polluted flow moves continually in and out of adjacent aquifers.

We’re dealing with serious challenges: aquifer depletion, loss of groundwater recharge and contamination of the resource.

But groundwater contamination from the petroleum industry is a far bigger problem than keeping toxic oil sands extraction by-products out of boreal rivers. That artesian spring that Dad and we kids stumbled across five decades ago was merely the tip of the iceberg; groundwater damage may be widespread. If so, we won’t necessarily hear about it from industry, government regulators or even the private citizens whose wells have been contaminated.

Alberta has been drilling holes through its aquifers for over a century. Over 400,000 oil and natural gas wells spike the landscape now, according to records maintained by the Alberta Energy Regulator, a government body funded entirely by the oil and gas industry it was set up to regulate. About a third no longer produce oil or gas. When a well becomes inactive, the company is supposed to “abandon” it (i.e., decommission it) according to strict industry protocols.

Well operators have to submit an abandonment plan and check on the condition of any cement in the well. They then clean petroleum residues from the pipe, block any escaping methane gas, seal off groundwater zones with cement and cap the well. The theory is that the metal pipe, filled with cement down to below any potable groundwater, protects aquifers. In reality, even if the original well didn’t contaminate an aquifer with drilling or fracking fluids or through methane leakage along the well bore, abandoned wells can be plagued by pipe corrosion, cement failure or damage from industry’s increasingly common practice of inducing subterranean earthquakes to release oil and gas trapped in relatively impermeable rock formations. Fracking, as it’s called, deliberately shatters underground rock. Although most fracking is done far beneath freshwater aquifers, it’s still risky, considering that aquifers are best protected by intact rock layers.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has a history of downplaying the risks associated with oil and gas extraction and well abandonment. The agency stubbornly insists that no drinking water well has ever been contaminated by a petroleum well in Alberta, but concedes on its website: “While abandoned wells do not place the environment or public at significant risk, small leaks are possible. A well leak can be caused by many things, including corrosion, improper abandonment and damage incurred during excavation.” Research has shown that fracking can cause leaks in nearby wells too.

Once AER approves a well remediation plan, the company has to repair any ensuing leaks. That’s the theory. But when companies get into financial trouble, the orderly well-abandonment process can fall apart. Many companies simply walk away from unreclaimed or leaking wells. When that happens, AER requires Alberta’s industry-funded Orphan Well Association to shut the wells in. The association, however, has a backlog of more than 700 unreclaimed wells, any or all of which could be contaminating groundwater. It can cost millions of dollars to reclaim one well; that’s partly why the association has reclaimed fewer than 50 a year since its inception in 2002.

According to one recent summary, Alberta has about 80,000 inactive wells outside the orphan well program. While most of those have been decommissioned according to the prescribed protocol, about 37,000 are out of compliance with AER requirements. In addition, at least 3,300 are ticking time bombs with known wellbore integrity problems that have yet to be properly remediated.

Some landowners and politicians have called for the Alberta government to use public money to remediate orphaned wells during the current economic recession, arguing that, among other things, such a program would keep drilling contractors working until demand for new oil and gas wells picks up again. The government has resisted that idea, citing Alberta’s long-standing polluter-pay principle and the risks of allowing industry to transfer its environmental liabilities onto taxpayers. Even if the government were willing to entertain the idea, little public money is available due to the practice in Alberta, over the past two decades, of charging bargain-basement royalties in order to keep those now-failing companies in business.

Without a greater sense of urgency and more aggressive levies on industry, there is little prospect that many of Alberta’s abandoned wells will ever be properly sealed. Once the consequences of that failure turn up in our drinking water wells, it will be too late. It is far easier to pollute groundwater than to clean it up again.

However, it’s not just energy wells that expose groundwater to the risk of contamination. Alberta is littered with tens of thousands of abandoned water wells—potentially an even bigger threat, since they can channel surface contaminants such as septic waste, cattle manure or pesticides directly into aquifers. Some have been safely plugged and capped; others haven’t. No regulatory agency checks on this.

Once negative consequences turn up in our water wells, it’s too late. It’s far easier to pollute groundwater than to clean it up.

Adèle Hurley directs the water issues program for the Munk School of Global Affairs. In a recent Globe and Mail editorial she decried the degree to which groundwater contamination is hidden behind the legal “non-disclosure” agreements that landowners are forced to sign before oil and gas drilling companies will replace contaminated water wells. Even without such agreements, she says, the public is told next to nothing about contamination of our hidden drinking water supplies by an industry based on punching holes through them.

“To date, no regulatory body in Canada has set up a rigorous program to track methane and other contaminants… in areas of intense hydrocarbon drilling,” she writes. “Yet science shows us that all oil and gas well casings leak over time and… serve as pathways for contaminants that can put groundwater at risk for thousands of years.”

Hurley supports a call by David McLaughlin, former head of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, for provincial governments to charge a royalty or fee for groundwater use and allocate the revenues to independent groundwater authorities for mapping and monitoring programs. “Investment in the protection of groundwater,” argues Hurley, “is a form of national security.”

Alberta will survive when the oil and gas run out. But nothing can survive without water. It’s time we defend our groundwater as aggressively as we have become accustomed to protecting those land uses and industries that put our aquifers most at risk.

Kevin Van Tighem is a columnist for Alberta Views and author of Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River (RMB, 2015).


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