EDMONTON—Alberta’s plan to protect the Athabasca River from the escalating pressure of oilsands development reveals how little the government understands about the environment it claims to protect, say prominent scientists and critics.
“It’s pretty pathetic,” said David Schindler, a retired University of Alberta ecologist and a leading expert on fresh-water systems. “If you were to put this before a panel of international scientists, they would be incredulous.”
Government officials say the draft plan, obtained by The Canadian Press, is the best they can do with what they have.
“Most people are going to say we need to improve the science. But of what’s available, (we’ve) used it.” said Andy Ridge, director of water policy for Alberta Environment. “It’s not necessarily the best possible.”
Last December, the provincial government distributed its draft surface water quantity management framework for the Lower Athabasca River to industry, interest groups and First Nations. Its measures are expected to be implemented by the fall.
The report points out industrial water demand on the Athabasca is expected to increase almost 500 per cent by 2020 and provides ways to regulate how much water could be removed at different times of the year. The river’s flow varies wildly: from 88 cubic metres per second in January to more than 3,500 in July.
Using 50 years of flow data, the report lays out varying withdrawal limits for five “seasons.” At all times, total withdrawals would be a small fraction of the river’s flow and would nearly stop when the Athabasca was flowing at its lowest rate.
Companies would be encouraged to store water to use during low-flow periods.
The problem, say critics, is that there’s no research justifying those withdrawals. Fish habitat, bug populations, water quality, groundwater, connections to tributaries—none of those factors was considered.
“It’s not based in anything,” said Bill Donahue, a water scientist and a member of a panel that advises the province on environmental monitoring. “It involves no assessment of the capacity of the river to tolerate reductions in flow.”
Even a couple inches in water levels can be critical, said Schindler.
“The main fear about low flows is that it will leave eggs and embryos high and dry. It’s like nobody wants to get out into the field and do some actual biology to see what flows the (plants and animals) require.”
Worse, Donahue said, is that the report assumes the Athabasca will reach its very lowest levels with the same frequency it has for the last 50 years. That ignores that most of those low-flow years occurred within the last decade, probably because of climate change.
Even then, waiting for the river to hit the lowest levels on record before cutting off withdrawals is too late, he said, adding that referring to the draft framework as ‘protective’ of the health of the Lower Athabasca River is “wildly aspirational.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if companies have to shut down if we get one or two or five years that are drier than normal,” Donahue said.