Western collaborative study shows future Athabasca River flows may not sustain water demands for Alberta oil sands

The Alberta oil sands, the world’s third-largest crude oil reserve, require fresh water from the Athabasca River – lots of water – as it is estimated that three barrels of water are required to produce just one barrel of crude oil. In 2012 alone, this amounted to 187 million cubic meters of fresh water or the equivalent of the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians. The water required to fuel the oil sands is projected to climb to 505 million cubic metres by 2025.

A new study from Western University and the University of Regina published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the presently available, approximately 50 year-long, hydrological records are not representative of the river’s long term behaviour and that projections of future water availability based on these data are untenable.

Brian Luckman from Western’s Department of Geography has studied tree rings from the Upper Athabasca Valley and together with his collaborators has used dendrochronology – more commonly known as tree ring dating – to reconstruct a 900-year long stream flow record for the Athabasca River, finding periods of severe and prolonged low flows not captured in the presently available instrumental record.

“A significant problem with the available discharge record of the Athabasca River is that there are no records of the most significant historical drought during the 1930s and 1940s when many gauging stations were closed down during the Great Depression,” explains Luckman. “Several of the earlier droughts reconstructed using the tree-ring records for the last few centuries are even longer and/or more severe.”

The records used to project or describe current allocations are largely based on the last 50 years of records and are not representative of the long-term trends or variability of stream flow in the Athabasca.

The obvious concern, says Luckman, is that the amount of water being taken from the Athabasca River is increasing almost exponentially and when this ever-increasing demand is combined with the new information on long-term variability of flows and the potential effects of climate change, the oil sands industry will face major problems with its future demands for water.

“Using the available hydrological records to characterize the available future water supply to the oil sands, it’s quite likely that you may get periods in the future where there is much less water than present projections would show,” says Luckman.

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeff Renaud, Senior Media Relations Officer, 519-661-2111, ext. 85165, jrenaud9@uwo.ca, @jeffrenaud99

Western University delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.