The dry spring brought to many parts of Alberta the stark reality of the importance of rainwater.
But all water usage is getting stretched beyond that which falls from the sky. And although this province is technically a semi-arid climate, Albertans have often thought of themselves as “water abundant.”
Alberta has 2.2 per cent of the country’s water and Canada has 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. Although we are down the list in terms of individual water usage (with the U.S. being the most wasteful), Canadians use 329 litres of water a day on average, 65 per cent of which is in the bathroom.
In Alberta, the way water runs is an interesting dynamic as 86.6 per cent of our surface water flows to the Arctic Ocean while 13.3 per cent of it flows east and just a dribble manages to find its way to the gulf of Mexico. And although 80 per cent of our water comes from the northern watersheds, the most usage of water in the province is in the south. The seven river basins feed nearly 600 big lakes (the largest of which is Lake Athabasca at 7,770 square kilometres) and they feed a host of other above-ground water sources. The main user of surface water in the south is irrigation at 42 per cent.
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Today the usage of water for irrigation is still high but controlled in a much more sensible way. New pivots waste less water and the changeover to pipeline from canal will save on evaporation. Irrigation water is licensed and paid for in the province. In 2009, irrigation used 73 per cent of the licensed water with the City of Calgary taking up the rest from the Bow Valley River Basin. In the Edmonton area, the cooling ponds for thermal power used 79 per cent of the licensed water from the North Saskatchewan River Basin with the City of Edmonton taking seven per cent of the river water.
In thermal oilsands production, 161 million barrels of water were used in 2014 from the Athabasca River Basin. Compared to irrigation, where does the oil and gas industry play in the use of water? In 2015 as an example, ConocoPhillips Canada (an American-owned company) used 11.6 billion barrels of FRESH water to produce bitumen. They are just one of many resource companies at play in our water every day.
Fresh water usage from surface and groundwater sources are deeply impacted by the oil and gas industries. But unlike a farmer or municipality they don’t have to pay. There is no cost for the use of fresh water for fracking in Alberta, a practice that is now proven to cause severe environmental damage and potentially contaminates groundwater for thousands of years as all oil and gas well casings do eventually leak. Earthquakes are now undisputedly proven to result from fracking and 96 per cent of fracking material is fresh water. Just as concerning, is that monitoring of aquifers in Alberta really does not happen and companies remain silent on infractions by keeping landowners quiet by paying them to sign non-disclosure agreements. And when oil and gas companies divert fresh water from public lands, they are not accountable nor do they have to pay.
At what cost will we continue to turn away from the diminishing level of our most precious resource?
I stand by the road of my neighbours looking at millions of litres of clean, clear water diverted from their stream into holding tanks for fracking. There is a new shore to our local lake which dropped more than a metre over the winter because companies pulled water out for fracking until the ice imploded. There are dead fish along another bank that carry the same physical scars of those that died after oil spills.
It makes me wonder why we are so afraid of science — and truth. Independent scientists are rarely allowed on site (even though the land is public or leased from deeded landowners).
Of course, other industries and municipalities contribute to the situation, too. A golf course will use the same amount of fresh water in 20 days that it takes to grow nine acres of a high-input crop like corn. I recall as a teenager how our gleaming dairy barn and immaculate home was impacted by the pumping of water out of a nearby aquifer for a housing development. We lost our well (as did many others in the area) and were left with the ruination of dark-orange and oily water. At that time the word environment was not even mentioned and farmers felt hopeless.
Communities remain affected and even though farmers have access to better information they often don’t realize the damage until it is done. Just as crop insurance does not substitute for rain, a little cash for a well site does not substitute for productivity. A non-disclosure payout does not substitute for truth.
It is hard for businesses to compete when they pay for water while the oil and gas company down the road drinks the last of the fresh water reserves for free.
When the land is lost, the job over, the river dry and the aquifer poisoned, we will wonder about that myth of abundance, quenching our thirst with a distant memory of Alberta’s most precious resource — water.