March 13, 2006

Alberta Environment to map groundwater, set well water baseline testing requirements

Two new programs announced by Alberta Environment will support the province's Water For Life strategy by improving knowledge of the province's subsurface water resources. The first initiative is the development of standard procedures and reporting requirements for baseline testing of well water. This will establish the state of water quality prior to coalbed methane drilling. The second is a two-year program to map groundwater resources in central Alberta.

Baseline testing, the need for which was determined in earlier work with stakeholders, will ensure that well water quality is accurately measured and reported before drilling for coalbed methane takes place. It will provide information about well water quality, well capacity and the presence or absence of gas. Collecting this data prior to coalbed methane drilling will help industry, regulators and landowners assess any future concerns.

Methane is a naturally-occurring, dissolved gas commonly found in groundwater throughout Alberta. If a water well is drilled into a coal zone, methane will be present, if not in the beginning then later. Generally, shallow wells are less likely to have dissolved methane than deeper wells.

An Alberta Environment fact sheet notes that difficulties with coalbed methane experienced in the U.S. are considered highly unlikely to occur in Alberta for two important reasons.

First, the U.S. coal formations are known to have much more water in their coal seams. This is not the case in Alberta: the Horseshoe Canyon, for example, is virtually free from water.

Second, Alberta has a very strong regulatory framework around coalbed methane development. Provincial regulations protect existing water well users, are clear on water diversion and disposal, and do not allow the dewatering of aquifers. They also provide for public consultation and notification. None of this exists in the U.S.

Water well drillers who encounter gas zones while drilling must immediately seal off the zone and report its presence to the owner. If the gas would prevent the safe operation of the water well, it must also be reported to Alberta Environment.

If well owners find that their well is producing methane, they can consult Alberta Environment or their regional health authority regarding mitigation measures. The province recommends that landowners have a routine chemical analysis of water for household and/or agricultural use done at least once a year, and that they shock-chlorinate their wells to keep them clean and free from bacteria.

A government publication, "Water Wells that Last for Generations," provides information on troubleshooting well problems, including excessive methane production. It is available from Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at 1-800-292-5697, or may be downloaded from Alberta Environment's Web site, www.environment.gov.ab.ca.

Alberta Environment's two-year program to map groundwater will focus on central Alberta, specifically in the Ardley coal zone, where fresh groundwater may be pumped to facilitate coalbed methane development. This initial mapping is expected to be complete in 2008. Groundwater makes up about 3% of licensed industrial water use in Alberta.

The department's Groundwater Information Centre currently collects and distributes information on groundwater reported by water well drillers for every water well drilled in the province, and maintains a bibliography of regulatory and scientific reports relevant to groundwater. This information is available to the public and provides essential information about aquifers and groundwater availability.

In addition, the Alberta Research Council has maps of expected water well yield for most of the developed areas of the province.

Over the next several years, Alberta Environment will undertake an extensive groundwater mapping exercise for a complete and accurate picture of all Alberta's groundwater resources.

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