Energy and agriculture compete for water

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Energy projects in east central and northwest Alberta are causing some concerns for local agricultural producers, especially when it comes to water resources, says Sarah Depoe of Alberta Agriculture.

“Both areas are slated for energy development in the near future and we will need to make important decisions in respect to water,” Depoe told the recent Water, Agriculture and the Environment conference in Lethbridge.

Agricultural activities in Alberta occur on about one-third of the province’s land base, or 52.1 million acres. There are about 49,000 farms and 6.3 million cattle and calves, making Alberta the largest beef-producing province in Canada. About 5 per cent of the cultivated land is irrigated. It is estimated that the direct and indirect impact of irrigation is worth about $5 billion to the Alberta economy.

Irrigation, livestock watering, fertilizer and pesticide application, food processing and on-farm cleaning all require water. “We need clean water to support people, crops and animals,” says Depoe.

Energy developments, such as coal, natural gas and oil, rely on water resources as well. Alberta produces 60 per cent of Canada’s conventional oil, 90 per cent of its natural gas and 100 per cent of its bitumen and synthetic oil.

Landowners in central Alberta have also recently become concerned about groundwater contamination from coalbed methane development. Similar concerns have been expressed about a proposed coal gasification project in east-central Alberta. This region produces 12 per cent of the province’s canola, 9 per cent of the wheat, 4 per cent of the cattle and 3 per cent of the hogs. It is also heavily reliant on groundwater, since its only main surface water is the Battle River, the second smallest

major river in Alberta. About 71 per cent of all groundwater allocations in the area are for agriculture.

The energy project would be Canada’s first coal gasification plant, slated for 2014. It would convert coal to gas, as opposed to coal to electricity. It would also require 2.4 to 9.5 million cubic metres of water supply per year from the North Saskatchewan River. Sherritt, the developer, believes there to be sufficient coal near the communities of Tofield, Ryley and Round Hill to operate two gasification units for 40 years.

While Sherritt assures agricultural producers that the land will be reclaimed and water supply to their operations will remain the same, there are still concerns that the mining activities will compromise groundwater supplies in the long term, says Depoe.

PEACE RIVER CONCERNS

In the northwest region of Alberta, near the cities of Grande Prairie and Peace River, there are other concerns about water and energy development. This area is home to the largest, and one of the least-accessible, rivers in Alberta – the Peace River. In some areas, it is up to 275 metres from river to bench, making it nearly impossible to pump water up from the river to the bench. Therefore, the region relies on groundwater and surface runoff, but the water table is decreasing and many groundwater resources are high in sodium.

Depoe says some of the concerns in the area are that energy projects will remove water from rivers, lakes and aquifers (such as a proposed nuclear project that generates instantaneous demand for cooling), and that prime agricultural land will be lost to urban sprawl from Grande Prairie.

Currently, water consumption in the Peace River Basin is about 0.44 per cent (1.6 per cent allocated). Five per cent of that use is for oilfield injection, while 3 per cent is for agriculture. Future energy developments, however, could increase the total percentage used to 3.9 per cent, if companies access water from the Peace River. “River systems may present a viable source of domestic and livestock water in the future (via water co-ops),” says Depoe. “If so, allocations must be made.”

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