Water Conservation, Contamination, and Alberta’s Flood

7 minutes, 26 seconds Read
Source: Calgary Stampede
Source: Calgary Stampede

Growing up in the Canadian prairies, it was water cooler talk every spring to see if we had had enough snowfall or would get enough spring rain to keep our many farmers happy. However, this year, it was the over-abundance of water from the Bow and Elbow rivers that not only took over everyday conversations, but also took over entire towns, highways, bridges and even, Downtown Calgary.

The flooding in Southern Alberta took a lot of people by surprise, and the horror of watching Alberta’s largest city become immersed in several feet of water, entire homes ripped off their foundations, people and animals displaced, and the several deaths that occurred, shook this Albertan girl to her roots.

Now, in the stages of clean-up, Alberta has drawn together to help volunteer time, energy, and money to rebuild. The city’s world famous Stampede started on Friday and we at ZE are even gearing up for our own co-sponsor reception party in downtown Calgary with our industry partners, Argus this coming Thursday.

The questions remain though: Should we have seen this coming and what are the consequences for conservation and contamination? In this blog, part 1 of 2, we’ll take a look at the oil and gas industry and its relation to water. In part 2, we’ll discuss the effect of water in the burgeoning fracking (hydraulic fracturing) industry, in Water Conservation, Contamination & Global Fracking.

Forecasting Based on Data

Let’s take a look at the data coming out of the Rocky Mountains’ Floe Lake in the Kootenays, near the flood sites in Alberta for snow water equivalent (SWE) (the amount of water content from snowpack that would result from melting snow) and temperatures – the two items that helped make this severe weather outcome:

Graph 1: Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) versus Temperature from January to July, 2013. (Data Sources: AccuWeather and BC Hydro)

Naturally, as the temperature spikes, our water equivalent from snow fall rises, but you can also see how early high temperatures in 2013 helped to melt quickly the large amount of snow pack that had accumulated over the 2012-13 winter months.

We also quickly pulled up the last five years of data in ZEMA (our data management software), to compare the numbers to see if Southern Alberta could’ve predicted these flash floods and continuous flooding, or if there really was no advanced warning:

Graph 2: Snow Fall and Precipitation against Temperature for last five years. (Data Sources: AccuWeather and BC Hydro)

According to this data, again from the Rockies near the flood sites, we see that it would’ve been very hard for anyone to predict the flooding this year, based on previous years. Last year, the same area had more snow and water equivalent and higher temperature changes. This year’s flooding appears to be something of a phenomenon.

Conservation and Contamination

In Alberta sits one of the largest oil-and-gas industry sites in North America. Since the oil field projects in Fort McMurray rely on the water levels of the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta, we can see the importance on the oil-and-gas industry and water conservation. Let’s take a quick look at water use in the oil sands:

  • Oil sands projects recycle 80-85% of the water used
  • On average, in situ operations require 0.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced.
  • Mining requires, on average, 2.7 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced
  • In 2011, the oil sands industry withdrew almost 112 million m3 from the Athabasca River. This represents 0.5% of the average annual river flow and less than 3% of the lowest weekly winter flow in 2011.
  • Oil sands fresh water use in 2011 was approximately 158 million m3; this is about 40% of the City of Toronto’s annual water consumption
  • In 2010, 51% of the water used by in situ oil sands was saline groundwater, which is not suitable for human or agricultural use
    (Source: Oil Sands Today)

Obviously, Northern Alberta’s oil sands projects rely heavily on the availability of water and river flow in the Athabasca River, and the effect of changing snow melt and temperature have a very large effect on the projects’ ability to continue production. In addition, the use of this water has its obvious consequences as well.

According to the government of Alberta, “no production water can be returned to the river” and it must be “stored in tailings ponds” (Alberta’s Oil Sands). Removing this water from the ecosystem it came from is an effort to stop the return of polluted water back into the system. The Government of Alberta is currently in the midst of a three-year comprehensive contaminant load study to examine the effects of land disturbance, air emissions, drainage and other potential seepage or spills. As of today, the Government states there are “consistent readings of naturally occurring [oil sands-derived hydrocarbon] compounds” compared to historical levels in the Athabasca River (Alberta’s Oil Sands). The effect of flooding or changing water levels and the oil and gas industry has yet to be fully defined. (For a full In Depth look at water and energy, see our article, Water Dilemma: Conservation or Trading).

In Southern Alberta, the biggest contamination from the massive floods is E. coli, but there are also elevated levels of dissolved solids and nitrates (“High Levels of E. coli Detected in Bow River Following Flood”). According to the Calgary Sun, farmers have to avoid drawing water for irrigation from the Bow River, which has such high levels of the deadliest form of E. coli (0157) that it exceeds government guidelines. Currently, drinking water is safe, as treatment plants have kept up with the flow. Homeowners, however, still need to be careful of any standing water or areas of their homes affected by the contaminated water. The clean-up, as estimated by Alberta Premier Alison Redford, will take as much as $1 billion and 10 years to completely recover (CBC.ca).

This clean-up isn’t even a drop in the bucket for what kind of time and energy will be needed to recover the world’s water as continued oil and gas use and increased pollution from animal and human life continue to grow. Conservation of the water and the value of this increasingly scarce resource will continue to shape the water market, country safety and borders, and personal health for years to come. Come “hell or high water,” the future of the world relies on this basic necessity. (To read more on the derivative side of water consumption, see our blog, Water Derivatives: How Soon and How Many?)

ZEMA graphs created by Ian Mathieson and Olga Gorstenko.

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