Quirks & Quarks

The Oilsands and the Athabasca River's Fickle Flows

Research shows that recent water flows in Alberta's Athabasca river, which supplies water to oildsands projects, may be unusually consistent by historical standards - and could dry up in the future.

The water supply for the thirsty oilsands may not be sufficient in future.

This photo, taken near Fort Chipewyan, shows the low levels of the Athabasca River. Water use restrictions have been placed on a section of the river, but the group Keepers of the Athabasca believes there should be restrictions on the entire reiver. (Submitted by Jesse Cardinal)
The Athabasca River is one of Alberta's most important waterways, not the least because it provides the large amount of water used by Alberta's thirsty oilsands industry. But our expectations of just how much water the river will provide in the future, and how much may be available for industry and people on the river, may be misguided.

Dr. David Sauchyn, a geographer and Senior Research Scientist at the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative at the University of Regina, reconstructed historic flows of the Athabasca, going back 900 years, based on tree ring data. What he discovered is that the water levels in the river varied much more than recent experience would suggest.

He found evidence of droughts up to decades long, during which water levels were lower than anything seen in modern times. This suggests that water might limit the growth of the oil sands in the future, unless ways to make more efficient use of water are developed.

Related Links

Paper in PNAS
CBC News article
Globe and Mail article
Edmonton Journal article