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Water Today Title December 15, 2017

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Updated 1/17/14


When it comes to water, one could say that British Columbia is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, climate change is diminishing its mountain snow pack and altering the stream flow of its rivers . On the other it is sitting on some of the largest unconventional gas reservoirs in North America, in the Monteney and Liard Basins.

In fact, according to a joint federal-provincial government report released in November 2103, new estimates of the Monteney basin’s reserves more than double the previous amounts of natural gas resources in British Columbia, with up to 449 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that can be economically extracted. The problem is, to access these reserves a controversial gas extraction technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' is required. The process involves forcing massive amounts of water, chemicals and sand deep into shale rock formations, creating fractures in the rock that release the gas.

The City of Dawson Creek, located within the Monteney Basin where natural gas production is speeding ahead is among the first communities to come to grips with how this new reality will affect their water source.

Dawson Creek sits at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, in BC's Peace River Region. With a population of approximately 11,000 it is known for its oil and gas industry, a major contributor to the city's economy. Yet despite it's fuel-based economy, the City has developed some of the most innovative climate change and sustainability-related initiatives in BC. Years before the Carbon Tax was instituted, Dawson Creek had already begun the process of reducing its corporate and community GHG emissions. Now faced with the prospect of an unprecedented fracking boon, it is looking to its water and the sustainability of its watershed, once again demonstrating its pioneering spirit.

The Kiskatinaw River has been the source of water for Dawson Creek since the US army first put the original system in during the building of the Alaska highway in the mid 1940's. The City's existing water treatment plant was built in 1958 with major upgrades in 1991 and 2004 and 2007 (UV Disinfection ). Today, it is one of about a half dozen class-IV full treatment systems in the BC. The Kiskatinaw River however is struggling to keep up with the times.

Pressures on the watershed include forestry, agriculture, oil and gas industry, recreation and climate change.

"The lack of glaciers in the Kiskatinaw's headwaters has meant that water supply needs are met from annual surface flows combined with groundwater discharge throughout the eight major sub-basins in the watershed," says Dawson Creek Watershed Manager, Reg Whiten.

"And in recent years the flow patterns in the river have shown worrisome variability. In 1992 the river all but quit running. Again in the winter of 2002/2003 the river flows dropped to their lowest winter flow on our records."

Turbidity is often very high, and is tending to be higher for longer periods in recent years. The area is increasingly susceptible to drought. In the last three years, Dawson Creek has experienced two serious droughts that have spurred the community to institute level 4 water conservation measures, install water meters in all homes and businesses and increase the price of water. The gas fracturing industry was also asked to find alternative water sources, which it did, according to Whiten, by drilling down 1,000 feet to access briny underground water tables.

Because oil and gas companies were using up to one-fifth of the Dawson Creek's potable water for use in the fracking process, Dawson Creek initiated a partnership with Shell to build a plant to treat sewage effluent for this purpose.

Yet the fracking industry is just gearing up to take advantage of the shale deposits in Northeastern BC and the Dawson Creek area.

A 2011 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Wilderness Committee concludes that BC's ballooning shale gas industry is the natural gas equivalent of Alberta's tar sands, placing the province's water and hydro resource at risk as well as jeopardizing climate change policies.

According to the study "Everything from logging and road-building approvals to the issuance of temporary water withdrawal authorizations is now handled by the OGC (Oiland Gas Commission). This fundamental shift in industry oversight was followed in 2003 by the BC Oil and Gas Development Strategy, which included road infrastructure credits, royalty reductions, and regulatory “streamlining” - subsidies that saved the industry hundreds of millions of dollars."

On November 13, 2013, a coalition of environmental groups filed a court action against British Columbia's Oil and Gas Commission and energy company Encana Corp. over the use of water from lakes and rivers in hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. The petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court claims the Crown agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry has been granting repeated short-term water permits for use in fracking - a violation of the provincial water act.

While recent initiatives by government and industry to disclose fracturing fluid constituents, introduce new water allocation and water use reporting systems along with improved hydrological modelling are steps in the right direction, the increasing pressures on the Kiskatinaw River watershed are prompting Dawson Creek to find ways to stabilize its water supply ensuring it has enough reserves in periods of drought.

Within its SURE WATER initiative, four scenarios were submitted for public feedback on Dawson's Creek website in recent months. Over 1,000 people participated in the survey and the results were submitted to City Council on June 7. Of the four options presented during the consultation campaign, more than two-thirds of residents who provided input support the development of a new water pipeline to either the Peace River or Murray River, despite its higher costs compared to other viable options.

According to Dawson Creek's website, the feedback results show strong support for investing in a new pipeline to the Peace River, with less support for maintaining and upgrading the existing system as needed (15%) or building a new water reservoir (15%). Only 4% support the use of groundwater aquifers. Other findings of note showed that 82% oppose the use of fresh water for industrial purposes such as gas fracking, and 62% support increased public education about water conservation.

The proposed $57 million water pipeline from either the Murray River or Peace River was submitted to Dawson Creek council by a group of citizens affiliated with the oil industry headed by Paul Gevatkoff.

But the steep price tag attached to the pipeline option could be prohibitive. In a report to city council, chief financial officer Shelly Woolf, reviewed funding options for the proposed pipeline project and concluded that no matter what funding method was adopted, it is an expensive project.

If council was to approve a pipeline project and decided to fund the project by saving for it, Woolf lists cutting services, levying a special tax, using taxation from growth assessment, or a combination of all three, as ways the city could accumulate the savings. “Funding a new pipeline using these sources would undoubtedly create further conflict and anger, but more importantly it could create an environment of enormous financial stress for many businesses and residents,” the report said.

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