This Water Management Framework is designed to protect the ecological integrity of the lower Athabasca River during oil sands development. It represents the work of Alberta Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a multi-stakeholder group that includes environmental groups, First Nations, industry and regulators has also contributed to this framework.
Alberta Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are taking a precautionary approach in managing the river and have divided water management objectives into two phases. This approach preserves the river over the short-term while allowing for innovation and leading research to help guide future management actions to safeguard the river.
Phase 1 incorporates the large body of work provided by CEMA, a group that makes recommendations to the Alberta government on how to protect the environment during oil sands development. This phase takes into account current demand and available water management options and will balance these with leading scientific work on the in-stream flow needs of the Athabasca.
Phase 2 will determine what modifications are required to meet environmental and socio-economic goals over the long-term. It will be based on a review and an adaptive management process with set timelines and regulatory backstop dates. This phase will allow for the additional development of science, integrated water management options and socio-economic considerations.
In 2003, the Federal/Provincial Panel reviewing the Shell Jackpine Phase 1 and Canadian Natural Resources Limited Horizon oil sands mine applications stressed the importance of CEMA completing an in-stream flow needs recommendation for the Athabasca River. The panel further directed that Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Alberta Environment complete the in-stream flow needs framework if CEMA could not provide a recommendation by December 31, 2005. In January 2006, Alberta Environment issued an interim framework for public review and comment. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Alberta Environment subsequently began a joint process to improve the initial draft and presented a two-phase framework to CEMA in April 2006. This current framework document is a synthesis of the Alberta Environment interim framework, the Fisheries and Oceans work on in-stream flow needs and stakeholder concerns brought forward during the framework review period.
The Phase 1 Water Management Framework uses scientific information on in-stream flow needs as well as information on water use to outline management actions for varying flow conditions in the lower Athabasca River. The fundamental concept behind the framework is to balance high levels of protection for the river with water needs. Monitoring and assessment of the protective and socio-economic goals will continue throughout the life of the oil sands projects and the framework will be adjusted as necessary to ensure water use does not threaten ecosystem sustainability.
The Phase 1 Framework consists of three river flow conditions - green, yellow, and red - for each week of the year. For each flow condition there are differing environmental implications and corresponding management actions. The management actions include reductions in water withdrawals if necessary to meet the withdrawal limits for each week of the year. The yellow and red management actions include the potential requirement for a Canada Fisheries Act authorization from Fisheries and Oceans Canada for impacts to fish habitat.
Phase 1 objectives include providing a high level of protection, while ensuring water use restrictions are realistic and the framework can be administered efficiently. The framework applies increasingly stringent standards during more sensitive time periods and during lower flows.
The framework achieves managed withdrawals from the Athabasca River and low risk to the aquatic ecosystem but allows some withdrawals during sensitive periods. These habitat losses at low flow during Phase 1 are believed to be a small risk in the near-term. Risks are additionally minimized by requiring comprehensive monitoring and research followed quickly by a review to determine if more stringent restrictions on withdrawals are required.
While current oil sands water use has generally been below the most stringent limits identified within the Phase 1 Framework, current licences have allowed for maximum amounts that could cumulatively exceed them. Further project development will add to the cumulative demands that are now subject to the Phase 1 limits. Water sharing or other integrated water management options will be required to meet Phase 1 limits. The first licensed additional withdrawal will be by Canadian Natural Resources Limited in mid-2007. Alberta Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have directed the oil sands industry to submit a plan for meeting the requirements of the Phase 1 Framework by January 2007. Should industry fail to deliver a plan, the provincial and federal governments will make the necessary decisions to ensure that the Phase 1 requirements are met by May 31, 2007.
The Phase 1 Water Management Framework is being released to guide regulatory decision-making in upcoming applications. It will challenge industry to respond to adaptive and cooperative management principles to meet the framework's goals. Alberta Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada expect CEMA, or a similarly inclusive stakeholder process, will be instrumental in providing the input required for Phase 2. More detailed and technical information can be found in the main body of this document.
Protecting the ecological integrity of the rivers is a priority for Alberta Environment as part of its Water for Life strategy. The policy identifies the importance of developing and implementing water management frameworks, which are based on in-stream flow needs.