Athabaska River framework sets limits for water withdrawals by oil sands firms
Alberta Environment has introduced a precedent-setting initiative to protect the integrity of the Athabasca River. The newly-completed Athabasca River water management framework, developed jointly with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, sets maximum limits on cumulative water withdrawals by oil sands companies.
The framework sets a world standard by introducing one of the most protective policies governing in-stream flow needs to apply to year-round water withdrawals in a northern climate. Developed as a regulatory backstop pending completion of a long-term management strategy for the river, it ensures that oil sands companies reduce water withdrawals during all environmentally sensitive periods.
"This innovative framework is a huge win because it balances high levels of protection for the river with water needs," said Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner.
This balance is the fundamental concept of the framework. Based on continuing monitoring and assessment of the protective and socioeconomic goals in the region, it will be adjusted as necessary to ensure that water use does not threaten ecosystem sustainability.
The framework is based on work on the in-stream flow needs of the river which was begun by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a non-profit multi-stakeholder group. It also reflects scientific research and expertise within the provincial and federal governments.
Alberta is taking a phased approach to implementing the framework. All oil sands operators--whether new or existing--will have to work together to share water within prescribed limits. For example, companies will have to scale back their withdrawals during environmentally sensitive areas such as ice formation and breakup or fish spawning periods. Companies have submitted a plan to Alberta Environment outlining how they will meet the restrictions.
The first phase of the framework sets out management actions required under three categories of naturally-occurring flow conditions in the Athabaska River. These are designated as green, yellow and red conditions. Under green conditions, withdrawals of up to 15% of the river's flow will be allowed. Limits will kick in under yellow conditions, periods of natural low flows that records indicate have occurred about 14% of the time. Red conditions marking more severe low flows will totally restrict withdrawals. These low flows have been shown to occur about 4% of the time.
In the second phase, ecological base flow will be developed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the aquatic ecosystem. This phase will use further scientific and traditional knowledge of the lower Athabaska River, gathered over a period of years, to assess possible limitations established during the first phase. This will determine whether adjustments in the framework are needed for further protection of the river.
The Athabaska runs over 1,200 kilometres from the Athabaska glacier in west-central Alberta to Lake Athabaska in the northeastern part of the province. Its average annual flow, just downstream of Fort McMurray is 633 cubic metres per second. A total of 3.6% of the river's mean annual water flow volume is allocated to water users, including municipalities (for drinking water), agricultural operations and industries. Existing and approved oil sands projects in northeastern Alberta are currently licensed to withdraw less than 2% of the Athabaska's average yearly water flow.