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Oilsands activity threatens water supply: study

Voracious water consumption by Alberta's oilsands threatens the quality and quantity of water available to Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories through the Mackenzie River system, according to a study released Monday.

Oilsands operations draw most of their water from the Athabasca River, a tributary of the Mackenzie, and most of the water used is not returned to the river, says the study by the Sage Centre and World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

The study, which was released at the United Nations climate conference in Nairobi, Kenya, uses the Athabasca River and Great Lakes as case studies to project what faces Canada's freshwater supplies in the years ahead.

Oilsands use more water than Calgary

Water allocations by Alberta to oilsands projects on the Athabasca River now add up to 359 million cubic metres per year, twice the amount of water required for the city of Calgary.

A further 50-per-cent increase in water requirements from the Athabasca is expected when currently planned oilsands projects proceed.

The Athabasca is already losing flow due to the effects of global warming, and its summer flow at Fort McMurray declined almost 20 per cent from 1958 to 2003, says the study.

The combined impacts of water withdrawals from oilsands projects and climate change will have serious consequences beyond the area of the projects themselves."

Urgent need for water-sharing deals

The study says provinces and territories around the Mackenzie basin should urgently negotiate binding water-sharing agreements, such as already exist for the Saskatchewan River system.

"The projected rate of water use from the Athabasca River, in the oilsands projects, is unsustainable.

"Flows will be insufficient to satisfy the needs of oilsands production, as well as other industrial, commercial, agricultural, municipal and environmental users, including the biologically rich Peace Athabasca Delta."

At risk is Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the delta.

Water polluted in extraction process

The study says that strip mining in the oilsands requires two to 4.5 cubic metres of water to extract one cubic metre of synthetic crude oil.

The water becomes heavily polluted in the process and only 10 per cent is returned to the river, with the rest held in huge storage ponds that are among the largest manmade structures on Earth.

"These environmental damages related to bitumen production … could eventually affect an area about one-fifth the size of Alberta, or about the size of England or Greece, since this is the extent of the deposits," the study says.

Saskatchewan stands to be especially affected.

"Saskatchewan borders on Lake Athabasca affected by Athabasca and Peace River flows. In view of increasing withdrawals of water in Alberta, combined with the effects of climate change, a firm agreement between the provincial and territorial governments is urgent," the study says.

It recommends a moratorium on further oilsands projects until the water problems can be solved.

The oilsands yielded more than one million barrels of oil per day in 2005. However, the study suggests the oilsands may be exhausted of oil by mid-century.

Editorial Notes: Contributor Dan Crawford writes: This report was first presented in Ottawa at the 'Business of Climate Change' conferenece two weeks ago. No media reports were made then about the research, today its a global headline story. UPDATE: The actual report is online in PDF: Implications of a 2°C global temperature rise on Canada’s water resources (Athabasca River and oil sands development Great Lakes and hydropower production).

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