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Tar Sands Producers Keep Drawing Water as Athabasca River Runs Dry

"Giving companies first rights to water, over long-standing Indigenous treaties or any other recognized water licences holders is clearly a human rights issue."

Photos by Guy Thacker

Tar sands mining companies have continued to withdraw water from the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta despite low flows that have made navigation difficult for river users downstream and left Fort Chipewyan's harbour dry.

Boats docked on Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan have been sitting on sand for the last month as water levels have dropped lower than many residents can remember, thanks to a series of droughts felt over the last few years.

According to the Keepers of the Athabasca, an alliance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents working to protect the watershed, low water has meant the fall moose hunt for First Nations has taken a blow this year.

"You can't get a canoe out there because it's so dangerous. There's so much mud you can't walk out," Jesse Cardinal, Keepers coordinator, told VICE. "Navigation is at a standstill, and this is prime time for fall harvest. People are out harvesting fish, moose, wild game. Everybody is wanting to go out hunting to try to fill their freezers, so it's really important for their treaty rights, for the ability to hunt and fish and trap and access their cabins."

Alberta Environment and Parks spokesperson Lisa Glover confirmed that levels near Fort Chipewyan were below average and that Lake Athabasca was lower than in previous years.

But while First Nations harvesters have had their navigation throughout the delta impeded by low water levels, oil companies have seen no restrictions to the amount of water they are allowed to withdraw from the river.

River users were already complaining of extremely low levels by the end of May. Barging operator Guy Thacker, who ships goods between Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray via the Athabasca, reported on June 1 that the river was "30 percent islands, 60 percent sandbars and 10 percent water," making navigation a challenge.

Responding to a low flow advisory for the Upper Athabasca on July 24, the government suspended Temporary Diversion Licences (TDLs) and notified water users that no new applications would be accepted.

But according to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the body responsible for implementing the province's Surface Water Quantity Framework, limits were only placed on industry upstream of the town of Athabasca and not in the Lower Athabasca area that supplies the tar sands.

"Alberta Environment and Parks did not place restrictions on the Lower Athabasca Basin, downstream of the Town of Athabasca," AER spokesperson Jordan Fitzgerald noted.

Five TDLs were suspended on Aug. 6, but lifted again on Aug. 25. Since then, 14 TDLs have been issued to divert water from the Athabasca.

Oil companies are the largest water user on the Athabasca River. A 2007 report by the University of Alberta said the tar sands industry requires the same volume of water as a city of two million each year to produce one million barrels of oil per day. Total production (mined and in situ) reached about 2.3 million barrels per day in 2014, according to Alberta Energy.

While the Alberta government maintains oil companies are using just one percent of water from the Athabasca annually, Cardinal said that's not true in the case of the extreme drought experienced this year in Alberta—the same conditions that resulted in record wildfires across the province.

"Giving companies first rights to water, over long-standing Indigenous treaties or any other recognized water licences holders is clearly a human rights issue," Cardinal said. "There are still reports coming into the Keepers of the Athabasca that the Athabasca River is still extremely low. Why has the water restriction been lifted? At a time when communities downstream depend on healthy water levels for fall harvesting, and daily use, such as drinking water?"

Existing regulations set limits on water withdrawals by oil companies from the Lower Athabasca each week of the year based on average flow conditions, which determine if management actions are required.

Those limits are considered outdated by the province and are in the process of being updated, with a new management framework for water quantity promised to come into effect by Oct. 29.

The new framework will include new limits, requiring the majority of existing companies to stop water withdrawals during low-flow periods, and establish weekly triggers based on predicted future flow conditions that take into consideration a range of climate change scenarios, to ensure there is adequate water quantity for Aboriginal land users.

But Cardinal has doubts about the new framework, which she said was developed with minimal input from First Nations. The framework is part of the province's Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP), a land use plan hotly contested by First Nations. Five have pulled out of the process based on complaints around a lack of consultation and accommodation.

Furthermore, the new limits are inconsistent among oil companies. While most oil companies could be prohibited from withdrawing water during times of low flow (87 m3/second), Shell's Muskeg River and Canadian Natural Resource Ltd.'s Horizon project will be able to continue drawing a limited amount (0.2 m3/second), while Syncrude and Suncor will be able to withdraw even more (2 m3/second).

Alberta Environment blames the variance on "infrastructure challenges" that necessitate a bare minimum withdrawal during low flow periods to prevent freezing at some tar sands facilities.

Cardinal said the Alberta government needs to enter into a co-management regime with First Nations on the Athabasca River that would incorporate community-based monitoring into the management framework and fully consider the concerns of indigenous peoples in setting these kinds of limits.

Alberta Environment said working more closely with First Nations partners is the eventual plan.

"Alberta Environment and Parks did commit to community based monitoring, particularly in the context of navigation," Environment and Parks spokesperson Glover said. "This is still in development."

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