PLANT

Critics call Alberta’s plan for Athabasca River ‘pathetic’

Water demand to increase 500% by 2020; officials say they used the best available science.


EDMONTON — Alberta’s plan to protect the Athabasca River from the escalating pressure of oil sands development reveals how little the government understands about the environment it claims to protect, say prominent scientists and critics.

“It’s pretty pathetic,” said David Schindler, a retired University of Alberta ecologist and a leading expert on fresh-water systems. “If you were to put this before a panel of international scientists, they would be incredulous.”

Government officials say the draft plan, obtained by The Canadian Press, is the best they can do with what they have.

“The challenge we have is that we’re using what I’d call the best available science,” said Andy Ridge, director of water policy for Alberta Environment. “It’s not necessarily the best possible.”

Last December, the provincial government distributed its draft surface water quantity management framework for the Lower Athabasca River to industry, interest groups and First Nations. It’s expected the measures will be implemented by the fall.

The report points out industrial water demand on the Athabasca is predicted to increase by nearly 500% by 2020 and provides ways to regulate how much water could be removed at different times of the year. The river’s flow varies wildly: from 88 cubic metres per second in January to more than 3,500 in July.

Using 50 years of flow data, the report lays out varying withdrawal limits for five “seasons.” At all times, total withdrawals would be a small fraction of the river’s flow and would nearly stop when the Athabasca was flowing at its lowest rate.

Companies would be encouraged to store water to use during low-flow periods.

The problem, say critics, is that there’s no research justifying those withdrawals. Fish habitat, bug populations, water quality, groundwater, connections to tributaries – none of those factors was considered.

“It’s not based in anything,” said Bill Donahue, a water scientist and a member of a panel that advises the province on environmental monitoring. “It involves no assessment of the capacity of the river to tolerate reductions in flow.”

Even a couple inches in water levels can be critical, said Schindler.

“The main fear about low flows is that it will leave eggs and embryos high and dry. It’s like nobody wants to get out into the field and do some actual biology to see what flows the (plants and animals) require.”

Worse, Donahue said, is that the report assumes the Athabasca will reach its very lowest levels with the same frequency it has for the last 50 years. That ignores that most of those low-flow years occurred within the last decade, probably because of climate change.

Even then, waiting for the river to hit the lowest levels on record before cutting off withdrawals is too late, he said.

Ridge acknowledges in-the-field science is scarce in the report. He said Alberta used state-of-the-art computer modelling to fill in the gap, using raw data from different sources.’

More and better research is on its way, he said.

Donahue said the province is gambling with its major industry.

“This industry is expanding on the absolute assumption that water supplies are going to be stable and at levels they’ve been at in the past for at least the next 50 years. All the trends say that’s not the proper way to look at it. It wouldn’t surprise me if companies have to shut down if we get one or two or five years that are drier than normal.”

Those who actually live on the river aren’t impressed either.

“When we hit low water levels, a lot of our people won’t even be able to get into their traditional territory,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a band of 1,000 people at Fort Chipewyan, where about three-quarters of the people are on the river several times a week.

“This government – both federal and provincial – are, in more ways than one, catering to industry needs and looking after the whole economic front.”

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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