Learn: Groundwater in Alberta 

How much groundwater is there in Alberta?

Saline water versus Freshwater 

Saline water is water that is salty. This is the water that is found in the oceans and seas. The volume of salt in saline water can vary greatly. For example, the Dead Sea in Jordan is the saltiest sea in the world. There is so much salt that a person can float on top of the water without any effort. Sometimes lakes can contain saltwater (e.g. Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City, Utah). 

If groundwater has enough salt in it, then it is called saline groundwater.

Freshwater is found in rivers, lakes and even glaciers. Groundwater can be fresh, but the groundwater that is deeper than 150 metres runs the risk of being too saline to use as drinking water. 

It is estimated that there is approximately 40,000 km3 of groundwater in Alberta. This amount is equivalent to almost twice the water found in all the Great Lakes or 16 trillion Olympic-sized swimming pools. Despite the large amount of groundwater in Alberta, the majority of it is inaccessible because it is deep below the surface. For this reason, it is thought only 0.01% of Alberta’s groundwater can be recovered [1].

There is much more groundwater than surface water on the planet. Worldwide there is around 11 to 15 million km3 of groundwater (fresh and saline), while there is only 109,000 km3 of fresh surface water. Of all the fresh water in the world, 69.4% is stored in glaciers, 30.3% is groundwater, and 0.3% is surface water [2].

Since groundwater is located beneath the earth’s surface it is very difficult to measure and estimates of its quantity can vary greatly.

How is groundwater used in Alberta? 

The majority of Albertans rely on surface water for drinking water and only 21.0% of the population relies on groundwater [3]. Of the wells in Alberta, 84.0% draw from bedrock aquifers  (deeper aquifers in the hard rock layers) and 16.0% from unconsolidated deposits  (shallow aquifers made of loose sediment) [4]

The majority of groundwater that is allocated in Alberta is allocated to industry (41.0%), followed by agriculture (23.0%) and municipalities (19%) (see  

Figure 1).

With the Bow River Basin, Oldman River Basin and South Saskatchewan River sub-basin being closed to any new surface water allocations , there is growing pressure on groundwater and surface water supply in the southern half of Alberta. In most cases it is more cost effective to use surface water. It can be expensive to drill a groundwater well and install and operate a pump. However, there are some cases where groundwater is preferred over surface water. This could be because there is not a sufficient supply of surface water available nearby, which is sometimes the case in rural areas. 

 Groundwater graph
Figure 1: This figure shows the division of groundwater allocations. Industry is the biggest user, followed by agriculture and then municipalities [5].  

How is groundwater use regulated?

The Water Act regulates withdrawal, diversion and use of groundwater. If water is being used for anything other than household or traditional agricultural uses, a licence is required. Withdrawals must be approved for all industrial activities such as coal mines, coalbed methane development and gravel pits that may impact groundwater supplies, or any other project that could threaten groundwater resources. Additionally, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act regulates activity that affects groundwater quality. This includes the release of substances which can impact groundwater, the reclamation or remediation of contaminated groundwater sites, and the treatment of groundwater for drinking water supply [6].





[1] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD). 2014. Groundwater Use. Accessed from the web from: http://esrd.alberta.ca/water/programs-and-services/groundwater/documents/FocusOnGroundwaterUse-Aug06-2014.pdf  

[2] Rivera, A. 2014. Canada’s Groundwater Resources. In print.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] ESRD. 2011. Groundwater Use. Accessed from the web from: http://environment.gov.ab.ca/info/library/8397.pdf 

[6] ESRD (2011). Groundwater Management Retrieved from: http://environment.gov.ab.ca/info/library/8398.pdf