Water Quality and Monitoring

Industry and government have been closely monitoring the region’s water quality since the 1970s.

Oil sands projects are required to conduct extensive hydrological studies as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment process and perform ongoing monitoring of both surface and groundwater that may be impacted by operations.

Water Quality

Water quality, quantity and aquatic ecosystems health data in the Athabasca region is collected through various federal and provincial agencies.

Industrial activity on land has the potential to impact water quality. Both mining and in situ oil sands operations must be carefully managed to avoid affecting the quality of surface water (rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and other fresh water sources) and groundwater (provides the base for surface water).

All new oil sands projects require producers to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment as part of the regulatory approvals process. These detailed reports require an assessment of cumulative environmental effects and plans to mitigate any adverse effects. Extensive water studies are carried out as part of the process and operators must perform ongoing monitoring of surface and groundwater resources that may be impacted by operations.

Water data is collected through various federal and provincial agencies to detect any effects of oil sands development on water quality. The Government of Alberta has been monitoring water quality in the region since the early 1970s.

Water quality and testing

A Surface Water Quality Management Framework was developed as part of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). Water quality triggers and limits are identified to give advance notice of less favourable trends and establish minimum quality limits that must not be exceeded. A management response is required if triggers or limits are exceeded.

The Surface Water Quality Management Framework builds on, but does not replace, existing provincial legislation and policy on water quality, wastewater and the aquatic environment. It will not replace existing management systems such as spill reporting or drinking water surveillance. It will, however, fill a key gap by providing a framework in which to monitor and manage long-term, cumulative changes in water quality within the lower Athabasca River.

The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP)
is an industry-funded initiative focused on water quality testing in the oil sands region. RAMP is a multi-stakeholder environmental monitoring program, with the intent to integrate aquatic monitoring activities across different components of the aquatic environment, different geographical locations, and Athabasca oils sands and other developments in the Athabasca oil sands region so that long-term trends, regional issues and potential cumulative effects related to oil sands and other development can be identified and addressed.

Protecting the Athabasca River

The Athabasca River is one of the most intensely monitored bodies of water in the world, with ongoing analysis to ensure that water quality and flow rates are not compromised by industrial operations. Even with forecast oil sands growth, the Athabasca, Peace and Beaver River basins (where oil sands development occurs) remain among the least utilized river basins in Alberta. Environment Canada monitors the water quality of the Athabasca River as part of the Integrated Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands.

The Athabasca River has always had measurable levels of naturally occurring oil sands-derived hydrocarbon compounds, including Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. They are also produced when coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage and tobacco are burned. This is because bitumen from exposed oil sands along the riverbanks seeps naturally into the Athabasca River as it cuts its way through the landscape. The aquatic ecosystem in the Lower Athabasca River has adapted to this natural environment.

Groundwater in the region also contains hydrocarbon compounds and other components found in tailings water because groundwater is routinely found to be in contact with oil sands under normal geologic conditions in the region.

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