The Bog: The Alberta WaterPortal Blog

The Bog is where thoughts, opinions, discussion pieces, and action converge. Influential thinkers from the water community are invited to share their insights on current or controversial water topics. Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta WaterPortal.

Reality Check: Water and the Oil Sands


Lately it seems the oil sands are being blamed for all of Canada’s environmental ills. By reading articles in your daily newspaper or perusing the website of your favourite environmental group, it would seem that oil sands developments are to blame for all of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions and sucking up all of Alberta’s water. Case in point, the recent Rethink Alberta campaign lists many “facts” on the environmental impacts of the oil sands, many of which are based on misinformation and half-truths.

It’s time for a reality check, and to get the truth out on water and the oil sands. The most common misconception on the issue is that the oil sands industry is the primary user of water in Alberta. In fact, agriculture uses a far greater percentage of our water. In 2007, agriculture in Alberta was allocated 4.1 billion cubic metres of water. Current allocations for the oil sands are in the range of 7 cubic metres per second (about 221 million cubic metres total), which is about 5 per cent of agricultural allocations. Even if all existing, approved and announced oil sands projects proceed, the oil sands industry would only use 2 per cent of the Athabasca river flow – today, the industry uses about 1 per cent of the river’s flow.

Water and Okotoks

A November 30, 2009, Calgary Herald article captioned “Calgary utility would sell water to neighbours” appeared to be almost accepting of a City of Calgary proposal for a ‘not-for-profit’ water utility. This will not go over well with those who continue to protest the prospect of City of Calgary control over potentially divergent growth philosophies in municipalities that populate the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP).

Okotoks, a community known for its global growth planning leadership, is specifically referenced in the article – as in “Okotoks would have access to Calgary’s water supply on a cost-recovery basis ... but only if onside with long-term development plans”. The November 30 article shows a disregard for the majority of Okotoks’ residents who for years have opted for a finite growth strategy premised upon the carrying capacity of their Sheep River aquifer.

The gnawing concern for many is that The City of Calgary may well intend superimposing its will with respect to neighbouring communities’ growth plans as a consequence of enabling Provincial land-use legislation and with the City handed an excess water licensed capacity hammer. Elected politicians with an ear to their development lobbies will promote urban water efficiencies associated with urban development. Water drawn for household consumption will be seen to be returned to water courses as treated effluent. Paved roads will be seen to channel precipitation otherwise absorbed by a porous landscape directly to associated river aquifers. A more thoughtful examination will show that with expanding populations, associated industrial, commercial, agricultural and recreational sector requirements will lead to disproportionate increases in the aggregate demand for water.

Chateau Lake Louise Waste Water Probe

The Chateau Lake Louise has a reputation as an environmentally friendly hotel, but is that reputation fully deserved? While scrutinizing their application to build a new water treatment facility and reservoir, I noted that the size of the reservoir was three times the size of the old one. It also came to light that their water losses, the difference between what they produce and consume, were ranging from 20% to 45% a month. This trend had been occurring for at least seven years. The volumes of water missing were massive- on average 500 semi-tractor loads worth a month. With the Chateau’s business volume actually decreasing each year, the question was why not fix your water losses rather than increase your storage capacity?

The Chateau, and Parks Canada, argued the increased capacity was needed to offset low production levels during peak times of the summer-despite the majority of water losses occurring in the winter months. The filters at the original plant were plugging, and the necessary water for operations was not adequate to meet demand. The logical choice to correct this problem would be a new filtration system and modern pump house. Both organizations refused to consider any other alternative. Despite the proposal being rejected by the Board the project went ahead, the Board’s decision having been vetoed by Parks Canada. The Chateau was given licence to take what it needed from Lake Louise and ignore its operational shortcomings. Dollars triumphed over conservation.

I resigned from the Board to pursue some justice for the Lake. The resulting press coverage brought forward two former employees of the Chateau who indicated that the Chateau was dumping waste water directly into Louise Creek. They thought this might explain the missing water, but this water was already metered and did not impact on loss numbers. However, it did outline another poor environmental practise of the Chateau. I sampled some pipe sites and found that the Chateau was dumping chlorinated water into the Creek. Surrounding these sites are large algae beds that do not exist at other points along the Creek. Parks launched an investigation, and found the pollution to be negligible. They did however order the Chateau to immediately cease dumping waste water into the Lake or Creek. The Chateau was forced to install a bypass to redirect this water to the sewage treatment plant.

Water Challenges in Oil Sands Country: Alberta's Water for Life Strategy

In 2003, the Government of Alberta launched its Water for Life Strategy in pursuit of the three interrelated goals of ensuring a safe and secure drinking water supply, improving the health of aquatic ecosystems, and ensuring a sustainable an prosperous economy. Six years later, what has the strategy improved, if anything? 

Lorne Taylor, who is currently chair of the Alberta Water Research Institute and who fathered the strategy as Alberta environment minister in the early 2000s, presents a report card. Innovation and research will be vital to improving water management practices, especially when it comes to oil sand production, he says, and it will require leadership as well as significant financial investments. Fortunately, he concludes, “the province currently has both, and will reap tangible and meaningful benefits as a result.”

If you were to ask Canadians what they believe is the most important public policy issue related to water today, many would no doubt say it is a fear that the government is planning to sell Canada’s water to the United States or other countries. Others might express concerns about how Alberta’s oil sands and other industries are overusing or contaminating water supplies.

In reality, the number one issue related to water in Canada is the urgent need to change how we all think about and manage water today if we are to protect and sustain our water supply for future generations.

Water, along with climate change, is one of the most important and talked about environmental issues of our day. At the same time, it is also a topic that to date has seen more talk than action in Canada, in part because of the perception, or perhaps misperception, that we have an abundant and unlimited supply of fresh water. The truth is Canada does have more water than most countries, but most of Canada’s freshwater supplies are located in northern Canada — a place that has one third of our land mass, but less than 1 percent of our population. Therefore, the question remains as to how much of that water is actually available and accessible for our use as drinking water, in agricultural production, for industrial use or for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

The Art of the Possible

Sometimes it is funny how things happen. A chance meeting, an exchanged business card, and a resulting whole new awareness...I met a photographer; when she gave me her card; on her card was a photo of a mandala she had taken in Houston Texas (similar to the one pictured, but not exactly the same). She had several cards, each with a different picture that she had taken (only one with a mandala). The card with the mandala was at the top of the pile, given to me at random.

At the time, I didn’t know what a mandala was; she told me and that prompted a little research. The mandala pictured is a Tibetan Sand Mandala (reproduced with permission from Wikipedia). This mandala was made in the British House of Commons to commemorate a visit from the Dalai Lama in May 2008.

Basically, a mandala is a sand sculpture or painting. The pattern in the photo was painstakingly created on the floor of the British Parliament by several Tibetan monks who use small tubes (almost like thin elongated funnels) and rub another metal object against the tube's notched surface to create a tiny flow of coloured sand grains (usually finely ground marble of different hues) and thus create the image. The mandala pictured is between about 0.5 to 1.0 metres in diameter and is made of millions of sand grains. Perhaps not surprisingly mandalas are rich with spiritual symbolism and are used by the monks to aid in meditation and prayer. They are sometimes considered spiritual roadmaps of both the cosmos and individual enlightened consciousness. Furthermore, they are believed to promote healing powers (The Dalai Lama arranged for prominent mandalas to be made in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania after the 9-11 terrorist attacks). The intricate design can be contemplated in its entirety or focus can be drawn to its component parts, each with a specific meaning, often multi-layered. It is important to realize that the pattern is retained in the memory of the monks and is reproduced free-hand with no written plan our tools other than chalk (for the outline) and the metal tubes for distributing the sand.