Calgary

Athabasca oilsands operations hit by water shortages

It's wreaked havoc on crops and shut down fisheries across Alberta, but now the hot dry weather and ensuing stresses on our rivers have hit the oilsands.

Low river flows result in licence suspensions in northern Alberta

Alberta's first oilsands operation, Bitumont, on the shore of Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, Alta. Many oilsands operators are facing water restrictions due to low water levels. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

It's wreaked havoc on crops and shut down fisheries across Alberta, but now the hot dry weather and ensuing stresses on our rivers have hit the oilsands.

This week the Alberta Energy Regulator reined in oil companies by imposing restrictions on how much water they can draw from the North Athabasca basin.

Those in the lower Athabasca region — including heavy hitters Suncor, Syncrude and CNRL — are not affected by the restrictions.

'Preview of the future'

Simon Donner says a University of British Columbia study he helped to write predicted this would happen.

He says this year's low flows are the result of both climate change and a strong El Nino event that's developing.

"With regulators this week deciding they need to put restrictions on water withdrawals from the Athabasca because of low flows, well that's exactly what the study says is going to be a very frequent occurrence by mid-century. So this really is a preview of the future," he said.

Suspended licences

The regulator suspended 73 temporary licences to take water from the Athabasca and Peace rivers due to water flows. Alberta Environment data shows the water levels have been low enough to restrict industrial withdrawal from the river since July 9.

Oilsands operators say they are taking steps to reduce their dependence on the Athabasca. 

Imperial Oil's Kearl facility stores three months worth of extra water according to the company, while Suncor says its withdrawals have declined by about 57 per cent since 2007.

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