A new study is raising questions and exposing flaws in the way Canada and the province of Alberta are managing the oil sands industry's massive appetite for water.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) evaluated technical reports on the health of the Lower Athabasca River, the main source of water for oil sands mines in the northern half of the province.
The scientific review, released last week, said oil sands operators should limit water withdrawals from the river when flows are low or risk causing "serious or irreversible" harm to fisheries.
There was "concurrence that a flow should be established for the Lower Athabasca River below which there would be no water withdrawal," the DFO scientists said. "This flow should be established using a precautionary approach, based on the best available science."
The conclusion reflects mounting concern in government ranks that the industry's growing water consumption is having potentially dangerous impacts on the river's health and instream flows.
Environmental groups applauded the study.
"It is a critically important report to come out of the federal government," said Bill Donahue, special water policy adviser for Water Matters, an Alberta-based nonprofit group.
It "makes it clear that at the very least the federal government cannot now deny that the river is likely not adequately protected," he told SolveClimate News.
The Alberta government has committed to setting a new water policy for the Athabasca River in 2011. Conservationists are cautiously optimistic that the DFO's "cutoff" recommendation will make it in.
"I'm quite confident, given the rising attention to this issue nationally, that governments will see their way through to embedding this in the plan for the Athabasca River," Tony Maas, director of the Freshwater Program at environmental group WWF-Canada, told SolveClimate News. "It remains to be seen, though."
A spokesperson for Alberta Environment, a department of the provincial government, said it is too early to tell if stricter water withdrawal rules will be adopted.
"The DFO is working with Alberta Environment on developing the phase two of the water management framework that's currently on the river," Jessica Potter told SolveClimate News. "Right now we're in the middle of exploring a variety of options. It's far too soon to speculate what's going to be the final result."
Current Policy Not Enough, Groups Say
In 2006, the oil sands industry was allowed to draw 2.3 billion barrels each year from the Athabasca River—enough to supply about two Calgary-sized cities.
Winter flows in the river can shrink to 10 percent of spring and summer flows. To police the industry during critical times, Alberta's current water policy, the Lower Athabasca River Management Framework, rates flows as green, yellow and red. Under "red" conditions in the wintertime, companies are required to withdraw less.
"As it stands right now, we have very strict withdrawal limits on what oil sands can take from the river," Potter said. "The idea of putting restrictions isn't new, considering we already have them in place."
But environmental observers say the current policy doesn't go far enough.
"No matter how low the flow in the river gets, there's still withdrawal," Donahue said.
Canada's oil sands represent the largest crude deposits outside the Middle East. Water plays a crucial role in separating the buried tar, known as bitumen, from sand and clay.
It can take 2.5 to 4 barrels of water to obtain each barrel of the bitumen, according to estimates from the Pembina Institute, a Canadian research organization. Currently, less than 10 percent of water is returned to the river, the institute says.
Limited Science on Thresholds
While acknowledging the danger of diverting huge amounts of freshwater, the DFO said that much remains unknown about the nature and extent of fish loss when river levels drop.
There is "limited biological data available for the Lower Athabasca River," the study said.
Missing, for instance, are baseline data on the size of the fish population, where they breed or how much water is needed to keep them alive.
"They have no idea what the ecological thresholds are," Donahue said. "If we're interested in protecting the Lower Athabasca...you need to get the foundational science that allows you to tell when the river is going to be harmed."
The scientists called for a "well designed monitoring program" to "address both the need for ongoing monitoring data and important data gaps identified."
DFO also urged more research on the effect of global warming on water levels.
Maas said the lack of science should not stall action. "That cannot be an excuse for not putting in place a cutoff now."
Once in a Hundred Years
"It's not going to cause significant harm to...the oil sands industry," Maas continued.
The cutoff level being proposed by scientists is 87 cubic meters per second. At that flow, mining companies would need to stop withdrawals from the river and rely on stored water.
According to the science, that would occur about once in hundred years.