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Page added on March 29, 2008

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Canada: Liquid asset

Could the oil sands, Canada’s greatest economic project, come undone simply because no one thought about water?

Here in Canada, we tend to think that while water scarcity, drying rivers and toxic lakes may be huge global problems, they really only affect places like China and the Middle East. But the rapid development of Alberta’s oil sands, coupled with accelerating population growth and climate change, has turned arid Alberta into Canada’s ground zero for water. Our history is all about exploiting our abundance of natural resources, and Alberta is the embodiment of the frontier’s boundless promise. Could our tradition of taming the landscape finally have been arrested by something as humble as H20?

The water experts say yes. The Canadian dean of the discipline, the University of Alberta’s David Schindler, wrote in 2006 that Alberta, along with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, will soon face “a crisis in water quantity and quality with far-reaching implications.” Natural Resources Canada has predicted shortages for Calgary as early as 2050 if conservation efforts don’t improve drastically. The federal government’s 2007 report on the oil sands concluded that “the Athabasca basin could encounter serious problems unless there is a radical change in water use.”

While the energy boom is bringing the issue to a head, Alberta’s looming water crisis owes something to natural factors as well as human-made ones. Lying in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the province is one of the driest places in Canada, with but 2.2% of the nation’s fresh water. It’s also prone to long, bone-bleaching droughts. Both historical accounts and tree-ring studies show that European immigrants settled the province during the wettest century in the last 2,000 years. This data also suggests that the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties was a minor event and that no European has ever seen the kind of 20-year droughts that have characterized Alberta’s climate over the millenniums.

In addition, Alberta shares with the rest of the nation a geographic vulnerability. Most of its water is in the north while most of its people live in the south. Albertans are concentrated in the South Saskatchewan River basin, where the city of Calgary, industry and irrigation drink lots of water. Yet the basin and its northern cousin, which drain into Hudson Bay, hold only 20% of the province’s supply. Northern rivers such as the Athabasca and the Peace carry about 80% of the province’s water into Canada’s largest watershed, the Mackenzie River basin, which drains into the Arctic.

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