Groundwater Summary and Key Observations

groundwater pump

The study's research on groundwater resources has shed additional light on this important resource, and has resulted in a number of key observations:

  • Groundwater currently support about 23% of the population of Alberta, and is likely to grow if basins in addition to the South Saskatchewan are closed from further surface water allocations or allocations of groundwater under the direct influence of surface water.
  • Groundwater interacts with the surface environment in the form of baseflow contribution to streams and rivers, and discharge to lakes and wetlands. As such, development of groundwater must consider the potential for adverse effects to groundwater dependant ecosystems.
  • Groundwater beneath our province is contained in near surface sand and gravel Alluvial Aquifers, an intricate network of Buried Channel Aquifers extending east from the foothills region of Alberta into Saskatchewan, and numerous Bedrock Aquifers.
  • The Paskapoo Formation represents one of the most utilized bedrock aquifers in our province, with an excess of 70,000 active supply wells utilizing water from that formation.
  • Significant quantities of both non-saline and saline groundwater reside in the various aquifers beneath our province. These volumes represent an important resource to the economic security of Alberta. With respect to non-saline water, the following median volumes (porewater plus storage) are estimated at:
    • 35.7 km3 (billion m3) in the near-surface alluvial aquifers
    • 135.4 km3 (billion m3) in the buried channel aquifers
    • 1134.4 km3 (billion m3) in the various bedrock formations within established “base of groundwater protection” zones
  • Significant recharge to the groundwater system occurs each year (15 to 30 billion m3, and possibly as high as 128 billion m3). By comparison, the amount of groundwater withdrawn from aquifers each year represents less than 1% of this volume.
  • groundwater pumpSaline groundwater use by the oil and gas industry has exceeded non-saline groundwater use since about 1997. The trend is for even more saline water use over the coming years, and a levelling off of non-saline groundwater use to support increasing bitumen production, and a decrease in support of conventional production and EOR.
  • Percentages of actual use of groundwater are generally less than 50% of the licensed allocations. Uses in excess of 50% are restricted to the Red Deer Basin (51%) and the South Saskatchewan Basin (67%).
  • Major users of groundwater in Alberta include, in decreasing order, petroleum, agriculture, commercial + industrial, municipal and other (e.g., habitat enhancement). Significant differences do exist in the amount used by each sector in each major basin, with petroleum in the north and agricultural/municipal/commercial in the south.
  • Between 12% and 47% of the estimated recharge across the province is related to overall basin yield, with the lowest yield associated with the South Saskatchewan Basin, and the highest with the Oldman Basin. The lower percent yield values tend to occur in the southern basins.
  • Actual groundwater use as a percentage of estimated recharge is generally less than 1% for all the basins. The only basins to have a value higher than 1% is the Bow Basin at 1.12%.
  • Trends in groundwater use project an increase between 0.7% (Milk River Basin) to 88% (Athabasca Basin), with decreases projected for the Beaver and Hay Basins.
  • Groundwater levels in provincial monitoring wells indicate fluctuating conditions, and hence changing storage volumes. General trends are evident and likely connected to major climatic drivers, however the period of record is too short to confirm connections. Changes in water levels have ranged from 0.2 to 2.5 m over the period of record, which translates to significant volumes of water.
  • The concept of “safe yield” is important to the sustainable development of any resource. The current regulatory setting in Alberta does accommodate this concept.