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Water Use Performance

Updated August 2019

Water is everywhere, but it is not distributed for use evenly across the province. Climate conditions, geology, nearby water users, and environmental flow requirements (e.g., to rivers, lakes, and wetlands) can all contribute to accessibility.

Our Alberta Water Use Performance Report dives into:

How Water is Allocated in Alberta

Water allocations represent the maximum volume of nonsaline water that can be diverted by existing licences from areas in the province for industry use. Nonsaline water allocations tend to be concentrated in areas where development occurs. For example, agriculture operations occur largely in the southern and central portions of Alberta, and oil sands development occurs predominantly in the northeast. Enhanced oil recovery, which is currently active across much of Alberta, is allocated both surface water and groundwater.

When companies apply to use nonsaline water, they must state the maximum volume of water that will be needed on an annual basis to sustain their project throughout its entire life cycle. Companies estimate their maximum water use based on their project's needs, a general understanding of the geology in the area, as well as what may be needed for contingency planning to ensure that they have enough water for their energy development project.

Due to the need for large volumes of nonsaline water, oil sands mining is allocated the most nonsaline water in the industry (62 per cent), followed by hydraulic fracturing (14 per cent), enhanced oil recovery (EOR) (9 per cent), and in situ operations (6 per cent). The remaining water (8 per cent) is allocated for other purposes to support energy development, such as pipeline integrity testing and hydrocarbon processing.

When it comes to energy development, our understanding of water use is based on

  • surface water availability and allocation,
  • groundwater availability and allocation, and
  • nonsaline water use.

The maps on this page show the proportion of surface and groundwater available and allocated as a percentage to all sectors of Alberta.

These maps are divided into areas defined by Alberta Environment and Parks known as Hydrological Unit Code 8 (HUC8) areas. To get information about a specific HUC8 area, place your cursor over one of the areas on the map; this will reveal information on surface and groundwater availability and allocation, the proportion of the available water allocated (as a percentage) to all sectors of Alberta, and the proportion that is specifically allocated for energy development in each area.

Note that allocations dictate where the water will be withdrawn from, but the water is often used elsewhere; therefore, at a HUC8 level, the volume of water used may exceed volumes of water allocated if that water was sourced elsewhere. Additionally, annual volumes of water used may differ from that allocated, as water stored before it is used.

The information is divided into "local" (meaning that the number does not reflect the volume of the water source if it is included in another HUC8 area) and "cumulative" (meaning upstream water sources are included). Both of these are further defined in the glossary. Groundwater information is shown as "local" only.

Surface Water

Surface water allocations represent the maximum volume of nonsaline surface water licenced for diversion from areas in the province for industry use. Surface water refers to water that is on the land surface, such as rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Its availability is estimated based on the annual average volume of surface runoff (water gained from rain and snowmelt). The runoff volume reflects the natural state of watersheds and rivers and does not account for flow regulation instruments, such as dams.

The local surface water availability volume values do not include water that flows into the region from upstream water sources. However, this information is very important when looking at surface water availability, and therefore is reflected in the cumulative surface water availability.

Water availability information is based on Agriculture Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Annual Unit Runoff in Canada – 2013.

Groundwater

Groundwater allocations represent the maximum volume of groundwater that is licenced for diversion from areas in the province for industry use. Groundwater availability is based on the average volume of water that enters a groundwater system from rainfall and snowmelt. After moving through the groundwater system, this water replenishes surface water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

As more groundwater is removed for industry use in the province, less groundwater water circulates to the surface. In the long term, this could affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems and result in lower winter stream flows in waterbodies.

While data on groundwater allocation is available across the entire province, availability information has only been compiled for areas in south and central Alberta. Where this information is not available, the proportion allocated will show that availability is not yet mapped. The Alberta Geological Survey is currently developing availability information for these areas.

Nonsaline Water Use Regions

This map shows where nonsaline water was used in Alberta in 2018 to extract oil, gas, and bitumen based on HUC8 areas.