Learnings

While having informed discussions with the Working Group throughout the ARB Initiative, a number of related learnings surfaced and were explored. These learnings were not strategies for sustainable water management; instead, they were facts or observations about the basin and water management that either supported or provided a counterpoint to commonly held perceptions. These learnings are included here to add to the information and platform of knowledge that offers a reference point for water questions in the basin.

1. Where does the water come from?

Common Perception

The water in the Athabasca River and its tributaries comes from multiple sources, mainly glaciers, melting snow and rainfall. 

New Learnings

Snow melt is the primary water-source in the ARB, resulting in a streamflow which is low during the winter months, peaks during the spring, and tapers off into the fall as the snowpack is depleted. The Athabasca River is also supplemented by glacier melt and summer precipitation events. Much of the water in the Athabasca River is generated in its headwaters, at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains.

 

2. Where does the water in the ARB go?

Common Perception

Industry withdraws and consumes a large portion of the water in the Athabasca River and its tributaries every year. 

New Learnings

While more information on water allocation, withdrawal, and reuse is required to accurately calculate how much water is fully consumed in the basin, only an average of ~4% of the water flowing past Embarras is allocated for human use through licences. Of this allocated amount, 83.1% goes to industrial uses (oil and gas, oil sands, coal, pulp and paper, agriculture), meaning industrial allocation only accounts for ~3.5% of the annual flow at Embarras. Of that allocated amount, industry typically uses (actual consumption) less than they are allocated (around 85% of their allocation on average annually based on reported actual use data).

 

3. What will climate change mean for the water supply in the ARB?

Common Perception

Climate change will mean typically less precipitation (snow and rain) each year and warmer temperatures causing earlier melting of glaciers and snow. All of this means less water supply in most years.

New Learnings

Scenarios modelled in this study show that precipitation will likely increase across much of the ARB, likely experience an earlier spring snowmelt, and higher spring freshets from higher spring precipitation resulting in an overall increase in streamflow especially during the spring and winter. Streamflow is likely to decline during the summer making this a challenging time for water supply. The potential for increased winter flows could be beneficial to aquatic species as problematic low flow periods are often present in the ARB during the winter.

4. How might melting glaciers impact long-term water supply in the ARB?

Common Perception

Glaciers worldwide are melting faster now than historically due to warmer air temperatures from climate change. We expect the glaciers in the ARB are similarly retreating therefore we expect that we will run out of glacier water supply at some point soon. 

New Learnings

Changes in climate will likely result in an increase in glacial contribution over the medium term (next 50 years or so) and gradually contribute less and less as the glaciers recede (in the next 100 years).

5. How might changes in land use affect water supply in the ARB?

Common Perception

Changes in how land is used (natural areas, forestry, farming, resource extraction, towns, etc.) and what covers the land (forest, rangeland, crops, cut lines, trails, paved surface, etc.), can significantly change the amount of water that flows in the ARB’s rivers. 

New Learnings

Changes in land use do affect hydrological functions and these impacts are varied depending on the nature and scale of the changes. For example; converting an area from grass to pavement results in less water infiltrating the soil and more water drainage. These complex hydrological dynamics and impacts are typically evidenced and managed locally, rather than at the basin scale. From a surface water flow perspective, changes in land use and cover in the ARB result in small changes in streamflow quantity, however, managing water flow from land into the Athabasca and tributaries is an important part of the water management system in the ARB.

 

6. Which has greater potential effect on surface water quality or quantity: converting land into farmland or increasing irrigation?

Common Perception

Developing new farmland will cause water quality problems due to sediment and nutrient runoff. Increasing irrigation will create higher water demand leading to water quantity problems. 

New Learnings

The results of simulating both an increase in agriculture area and an increase in irrigation resulted in little changes to water quantity. Alternatively, water quality may be more affected due to the potential increased runoff into the river systems or potential landscape changes. Best Management Practices (BMPs) could potentially mitigate this effect. New farmland development or irrigation should have no net impact to the existing issues around sediment and nutrient runoff if effective education and incentives for farmers to implement BMPs are available.

7. Will using alternatives to freshwater in in-situ facilities make a noticeable difference in flow in the Athabasca River?

Common Perception

In-situ facilities currently use a lot of freshwater in their operations and asking industry to change to alternative processes or non-freshwater sources will result in less water being diverted from the Athabasca River or its tributaries. 

New Learnings

Very few in-situ facilities hold surface water licences to divert freshwater and of them, very few, if any, actively draw from freshwater sources. These operations typically use saline water from groundwater wells. Modelling results show no detectable difference in flow in the mainstream when these current in-situ facilities received water from an alternative source.

8. Can shutting off water licence withdrawals improve navigation on the Athabasca River?

Common Perception

Industrial water withdrawals are high. If they are shut off, higher flows would substantially help navigation in the lower basin. 

New Learnings

Modelling in the ARB region showed that stopping the licence withdrawals made a limited contribution to achieving higher flows in the lower basin to support navigation and navigation targets were still often not met. Alternatives with a larger impact on navigational flow might include in-stream structures, an upstream dam and reservoir, better bathymetry and navigation models, or investment in alternative transportation. 

 

9. What critical gaps exist in water related data, processes, policy, and knowledge for the ARB?

Common Perception

There are many gaps in what we need to know to properly manage water in the ARB. While much has been and continues to be done towards sustainable water management, gaps exist in data collection and access, fundamental science, formal and informal processes, provincial and local policies, and individual and collective knowledge. 

New Learnings

Many gaps were identified by the Working Group, though defining the most critical would likely vary between groups based on needs and perspectives. An underlying theme for addressing many of these gaps is awareness and ready access to data.  There are instances where significant investment and effort have gone into developing datasets that are not productively used as they are not known or cannot be readily accessed.