Updated December 2020
Water is everywhere, but it is not distributed for use evenly across the province. Climatic conditions, geology, nearby water users, and environmental flow requirements for rivers, lakes, and wetlands can limit water availability.
On this page, we discuss the following:
- how water is allocated in Alberta
- surface water availability and allocations
- groundwater availability and allocations
- nonsaline water use
Water allocations represent the maximum volume of nonsaline water that can be diverted under existing Water Act licences. What the allocations are used for depends on the type of development in that particular area. 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 is currently active across much of Alberta.
When energy 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 determine the maximum annual volume based on the year with the highest water demand during the project’s life cycle, as well as a buffer for contingencies. This means that the actual water use will be less than the allocated maximum annual volume during years of low water demand.
Due to the need for large volumes of nonsaline water, oil sands mining is allocated the most nonsaline water in the energy sector (68 per cent), followed by hydraulic fracturing (11 per cent), enhanced oil recovery (8 per cent), and in situ operations (6 per cent). The remaining water (7 per cent) is allocated for other purposes to support energy development, such as pipeline integrity testing and hydrocarbon processing.
The maps on this page show the proportion of surface and groundwater available and allocated (as a percentage) to all sectors in Alberta. The data are shown at a watershed scale known as a hydrologic unit code 8 (HUC 8). This classification is based on a system developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) that divides an area into smaller and smaller hydrologic units, and that was adapted by the Government of Alberta for use in Alberta. The province has four HUCs, from coarsest to finest level: HUC 2, 4, 6 and 8.
Surface water refers to water that is on the land surface, such as water in rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Its availability is estimated based on the annual average volume of surface runoff (runoff from both rain and snowmelt). The runoff volume reflects the natural state of watersheds and rivers and does not account for flow regulation structures, such as dams.
The local surface water availability values do not include runoff from upstream watersheds that contribute to the local HUC 8. However, this information is important when determining the total surface water available within the local HUC 8, and therefore is included in the cumulative surface water availability data.
Water availability information is based on Agriculture Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Annual Unit Runoff in Canada – 2013.
Groundwater availability is based on the average volume of water from rainfall and snowmelt that enters, or recharges, the groundwater system within 150 m of the surface. After moving through the groundwater system, much of this water eventually replenishes surface water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Groundwater availability in the deeper part of the groundwater system has not been assessed at this point. This deeper groundwater is generally over 1000 years old and not recharged by local precipitation events.
Groundwater allocations represent the maximum volume of groundwater that is licensed for diversion. Groundwater allocations are split into two groups because availability is only determined for the shallow part of the groundwater system. The first group is allocations from water wells in the sediments above bedrock and in the bedrock within 150 m of the ground surface. These allocations are compared to availability. The second group is allocations from water wells in the bedrock that are more than 150 m deep. These allocations are not compared to groundwater availability.
Comparing groundwater availability to groundwater allocation helps identify areas where allocations exceed availability, which can then be further investigated. For example, in northeast Alberta, the watersheds that contain most of the oil sands mines show more groundwater allocation than availability. A closer review reveals that this is because the groundwater level (or water table) must be lowered in order to dig and maintain the open pit mines. The water that is removed is considered a groundwater allocation and exceeds the volume of water entering the groundwater system.
While data on groundwater allocation is available across the entire province, availability information has not yet been determined for areas in northern Alberta or the Cold Lake–Beaver River basin. Where groundwater availability has not yet been determined, the proportion allocated will show that availability is not yet mapped. Updates to groundwater availability will be included as it becomes available from the Alberta Geological Survey.
This map shows the actual use of nonsaline water in Alberta in 2019 (as opposed to the above maps that show allocations) to extract oil, gas, and bitumen based on HUC 8 areas.