WATCH ABOVE: Water use restrictions have been placed on dozens of energy companies due to low flows on the Athabasca River. As Margeaux Morin explains, some experts think that this summer is just a preview of what we can expect in the coming decades.
EDMONTON – For the first time in recent memory, traditional hunting and gathering grounds upstream from Fort McKay on the Athabasca River have been cut off. The drought has decreased stream flows so dramatically that boats can no longer float in certain areas — and local hunters aren’t the only ones to take notice.
The Alberta Energy Regulator has suspended 73 temporary water diversion licences held by oil companies this year in Alberta. It’s the most since 2002. Of those suspensions, 80% were for firms that draw water from the Athabasca River.
Simon Donner, a professor of climatology at the University of British Columbia, thinks this is a sign of the years to come. He and his team recently published a report that examined stream flow levels on the Athabasca Water Basin.
“We’re looking at a potentially 40 per cent to 60 per cent increase in the frequency of these low flow events in the summer,” Donner explained. The study points directly at climate change, predicting that warmer winters in the coming century will reverse peak flow levels from summer to winter.
“It could mean service interruptions of almost 2 full months of the year by mid century.”
Which means firms scrambling for new summer time water sources may need to put a better plan into place.
“These are the sorts of things that we expect to see more often, and the sort of thing that we really need to be prepared for,” said Donner.
Jesse Cardinal represents a non-profit called Keepers of the Athabasca. The group has been advocating for water use reductions on the river since 2006, but calls the 2015 stream flow levels the worst they have ever seen.
“There’s a lot of sadness right now,” said Cardinal.
“The water levels are extremely low this year. They are so low that fisherman that have been fishing their whole entire lives that are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, for the first time in their lives have not been able to do the type of fishing that they’ve done in their life time” Cardinal said. “And critics say, ‘well if you don’t have oil then you don’t have this this and this.‘ Well, what if you don’t have water?”
While Cardinal is pleased to see some license suspensions, she points out that hundreds of other operators are still drawing on the dry river through permanent licences.
“Our concern is that three of the largest water consumers of the Athabasca River still have no restriction.
“It’s not acceptable for communities to be sacrificed at the cost of a society that has become unrealistic in the way that we live.”
While the AER is urging oil companies to take action on their own, reducing consumption, building reservoirs, or trucking in water is pricey.
For Donner, the need to adapt to the changing climatic conditions is of crucial importance.
“It would be crazy not to take the projections to see lower water availability in the summer seriously if you’re in industry, because this is something that could seriously restrict your operations.”