What I'm going to do is talk about the changing water supply in the Athabasca River, focusing on the entire basin, and general implications in terms of what that might mean for water-intensive development.
I think I'll start with a basic summary of what science is. I don't know if anyone has talked to you about what science is, but according to some, science consists of formulation and testing of hypotheses based on observational evidence. In this, experiments are important or applicable, but their function is to verify observation and impose controlled conditions. According to Richard Feynman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and popular writer, science alone, of all subjects, contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallability of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation.
As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way. Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. I'd qualify that by saying it's the belief of experts in the ignorance of experts.
Generally, I would say that I would describe science as the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and from which explanations for them are formulated, subsequently asking and attempting to answer directed critical questions that are inspired by evident disagreement between observed fact and the explanations we have previously formulated. In other words, science is a process by which we learn, and it involves constant attempts to disprove what we think we know, by asking critical questions and rationally seeking their answers.
The next slide is “What is not science?” What is not science is anything that doesn't involve the collection of data and the attempt to formulate general explanations for them or the subsequent testing of such prior explanations via further observation and hypothesis-forming. Alternatively, what is not science is anything that has been shown scientifically to be incorrect and yet it's still presented as conclusive. The second aspect, I would say, is what we see a lot of in what we're talking about today in terms of environmental science.
Now on to some other topics.
This is table 1 in the submission I gave you. Basically what it shows is changes in temperature and precipitation for northern Alberta. Much of this was presented in part in a paper Dr. Schindler and I published in 2006. The general message is that in the majority of centres in northern Alberta, as well as much of the western prairie provinces, there have been fairly substantial increases in temperature since about 1970. I looked at 1970 for a number of reasons, which I explain in the submission.
Generally, the pattern is significant increases in temperature, significant declines in total precipitation, and generally either no change in rain or decreases, depending on where you are. If you're interested in water supply, certainly increased temperatures and declining precipitation are critical in that.
The next slide is changes in winter snowpack in northern Alberta. Again, these patterns are evident across the prairies. We live in the rain shadow of the Rockies here in Alberta, and ultimately a lot of our water supply comes from snowpack in the spring, and we rely upon a lot of that. As you can see here, what's in red shows changes in the number of days per year in which there's snow on the ground and changes in the absolute depth of snowpack at its maximum. The general trend, again, is that the majority of places have shown, since 1970, a significant decline in the length of time during the winter in which snow is on the ground and the total depth of the snowpack. Again, if you're relying on winter snowpack for a lot of spring melt water and all of the pulse-oriented, ecological processes that occur in a river with declining snowpack, you can expect fairly substantial ecological effects in surface waters.
What I show here is total summer flow in the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray. This is figure 1 in the submission.
In general, as you can see, there is a fair amount of variation from year to year, but ultimately the trend since about 1970 is a fairly significant decline. 1998 was a pretty wet year across the prairies. Ultimately, from year to year, you don't really know whether there's going to be quite a bit of water or very little water, but as I said, the trend is generally downwards. And this consideration of long-term trends is probably the first thing you should attempt to use in order to inform some kind of plan that is dependent on water supply.
Ms. Griffiths is going to be talking about the Cold Lake area and groundwater, and I just thought I'd toss this one on. This isn't in my submission, but this is the Beaver River near Cold Lake. It's the major river in that part of the world and it's a basin that's independent to itself in east central Alberta.
As you can see again, there's substantial variation from year to year in terms of total flow in the Beaver River, but ultimately in the last 40 to 50 years the decline has been pretty substantial. And you can see this a lot in the lakes and other surface waters in that area. A lot of lakes in that area are down substantially.
Another thing I presented in my submission was what's happening in the Athabasca basin on a sub-basin level? What I did, and I explained this in the submission, is took a bunch of monitoring points on the Athabasca River and looked at the changes in water flow between those points: What is added? How is the flow different at a downstream point from an upstream point? This is with the assumption that this change in water is the water that's added from the basin between those points.
As you can see, if you head up into the Sunwapta River, which is the tributary of the Athabasca that drains some of the glaciers in the Rockies, since the early seventies up until the mid-nineties there was actually an increase in the amount of water coming off the catchment. This is because of increases in glacial melt.
As you move downstream to Jasper, the flow hasn't really changed much. The farther downstream into the basin and away from the mountains you get, the greater the decline in the amount of water coming off the basin. For those of you who aren't really aware of the geography of the Athabasca basin, Hinton is about 80 kilometres east of Jasper, just outside the mountains in the foothills of the Athabasca basin. The basin that's downstream of Hinton comprises 94% of the total area of the basin.
What this analysis shows is that in all points between Hinton and Fort McMurray, the amount of water coming off the basin into the river has declined by about 50% since the early 1970s up until 2001 to 2005.
What I've given you now is a picture of where things have been and how things have been changing in terms of climate change and water supply. Looking to the future, out of the University of Victoria there are some climate change projects there. They have created one of the main models for the global circulation models that predict future changes in temperature for much of Canada. What I did here was summarize the output of ten regional models for the western prairie provinces. This shows you the degree of temperature change that is anticipated as a result of one of these models. As you can see, it's anticipated that in the 21st century, the temperature for the western prairie provinces is going to increase, on average, 6.5 degrees.
In the next diagram I've shown you what this means in terms of changes in climate. That's approximately the same as the difference in climate between Calgary and Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. So what we could expect, if we realize that degree of temperature change, is that the climate in Calgary moves north to Fort Smith.
What does that mean in terms of water supply? I did some modelling. I haven't included many of the details, but I created some models that predicted river flow and water yield, based solely on climate variables, things like temperature, snowpack, evaporation. In that way I remove a lot of the other information that other modellers need that is much more detailed, simply because there's an abject lack of data when it comes to this sort of thing, in terms of hydro-geological information, sediment types, ground cover, detailed evaporation measurements. Much of the water modelling that's out there is being produced as a result of intensive research on a very small scale, catchments that are of the order of less than a hectare in size. So trying to scale those results up to an area that's tens of thousands of kilometres square is impossible at this time.
Based on my models, I looked at a series of catchments in northeastern Alberta that ranged from about 300 square kilometres to 30,000 square kilometres. In trying to replicate what's happened in the past in terms of water flow, the model predicts about 75% of the variation in historical data, so it's fairly accurate in terms of replicating what's happened in the past.
I then tweaked the model to basically put forward scenarios of increases of three degrees and six degrees centigrade and looked at how that would conceivably affect water supply. In the blue, you see changes that are predicted as a result of a three-degree centigrade increase, and in the red, changes as a result of a six-degree centigrade increase.
On average, with a three-degree centigrade increase--and this encompasses all the years and all the catchments--the model suggests an anticipated 15% decline in the amount of water coming off these basins of this area of northeastern Alberta between April and October.
For a six-degree increase, the average was 39%. The numbers below each of the bars represent the worst case, the worst year, of the data that I used for each of the basins. There are going to be wet years and there are going to be dry years, just as there have been in the past. However, it's the really dry years that likely will concern most people. The numbers below each bar represent the worst-case scenario in terms of dry years for the three- and six-degree centigrade changes.
As you can see, it ranged from percentages in the high 30s to about 70%, depending on the basin, for the three-degree increase. For the six-degree increase, in dry years it was very, very bad, ranging from 50% to 100% on the basin. For the most part, it's in the range of a 60-70% decline.
If you're not looking at changing trends in water in the past when you formulate your management plans in terms of what you're going to rely on for water and what kind of buildup you're going to do that's heavily water-reliant, and you're not going to consider the possibility in the future that climate change is going to seriously affect the amount of water in that part of the world, then you stand the risk of running into some pretty catastrophic effects economically as a result of potentially catastrophic effects of climate change ecologically.
I'm on the next slide. I talked a little bit in my presentation about the lower Athabasca River management framework. There are three stages: green, yellow, and red. The message I wanted to convey was that the framework, as it is now, isn't based on any kind of observational science. It ignores the past trends. It basically ranks all of the historical flow from highest to lowest and then looks at the changes in that trend itself. It doesn't look at how it's changing over time, and it makes some assumptions that if you get a dramatic change in the ranked flow, that represents some sort of ecological effect.
Basically what they've done is design a model that more accurately reflects the geometry of the bed of the river than anything else. It ignores all sorts of ecological processes that are dependent on flow, such as the periodic reflooding of suspended wetlands in the basin, sediment transport, scouring, effects on fisheries, and that sort of thing. They've arbitrarily decided that 90% of the time, there will be no ecological effect and no need to limit flow extractions; about 5% of the time, they'll have to do some moderate extraction limits; and 5% of the time, historically, there would be more serious extraction limits under the right conditions.
I'm now on the next slide.
I included these figures in my report. The upper figure is basically the trends in the September flows of the Athabasca. This is to illustrate where they've gone. It's variable, but since about 1970, there's been a downward trend, as I showed. In the bottom slide, you can see that I've ranked them all. Under the framework, there'd be an arbitrary conclusion that 5% of the time it's in the red, 5% of the time it's in the yellow, and the rest of the time it's green. Green represents fine ecological conditions.
This ignores the fact that 50% of the last ten years would have been either in yellow or in red. If we're looking to the future in changing water supply, if water supply goes down, the frequency of yellow and red conditions will dramatically increase.
A paper in press from the University of Alberta argues that if the current water management framework had been in place in 2000, the Athabasca river flows would have been in yellow or red condition for up to 40 weeks per year and in the red for at least 20 weeks per year.
If climate change causes a 10% decline in flow, it's going to result in a substantial increase in binding flow conditions for the oil industry. I would suggest that this 10% figure is fairly conservative and conceivably a best-case scenario, since we're looking at a 50% decline coming off the basin downstream in the last 30 years, and since expected growth in the oil sands extraction is projected to go up to 2.3 million barrels per day by 2020. This means one of three things: they're going to have to find some substantial off-stream storage representing approximately 15% of the total annual water supply; they're going to have to reduce the amount of water they pull out of the river by about 50% below currently permitted levels; or they're going to have to find a way to reduce water use to less than 0.2 cubic metres per barrel of oil, which is substantially less than what they're currently using.
Basically, my message is that we're on a collision course between declining water supply and rapidly ramping up water consumption demands. Dave Sauchyn and some others at the University of Regina did some modelling of climate for the prairie provinces. In the northeastern part of Alberta, they're predicting a change from moist sub-humid to dry sub-humid or even semi-arid conditions. The amount of precipitation between northern and southern Alberta is now approximately the same and has been for the last 30 or 40 years. The difference is that the south is a lot warmer and that net water balance means there's less free water and it's much more arid. In the Palliser's Triangle in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan, if we get increased evaporation and increased temperature in the north, there's going to be less free water, and that means much less surface available for ecological and industrial use.
That's the end of my presentation.