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SHARING PRAIRIE GROUNDWATER
By Gillian Ward
Groundwater, the rivers and lakes flowing in rock formations deep below city streets and country fields is the single largest source of fresh water on the planet, providing this most basic need for two billion people globally. Industries also utilize ground water to provide the goods and services we rely on daily.
The Canadian prairies, with two thirds of the world's oil sands (bitumen) deposits and 80% of Canada's cultivated agricultural land, has a tremendous appetite for fresh water. As early as 1948, the Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and the Government of Canada founded the Prairie Province Water Board (PPWB) to ensure that water resources were shared fairly. In 1969, the four governments changed how the Prairie Provinces Water Board operated by signing the Master Agreement on Apportionment (MAA). The PPWB is located in Regina, Saskatchewan, in addition, each province has its own groundwater management framework and policies.
With municipalities and industries drawing down the aquifers, WaterToday wondered how scales are balanced between economics and water security. Further, we wanted to know how climate conditions may be impacting groundwater levels, and how all of this is monitored and managed.
Wayne Dybvig, former head of Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency (WSA) and forty-year veteran of water resource management in the prairies assured us that Saskatchewan is on top of its groundwater resource. "When a community wants to use groundwater, they must hire a professional to dig test wells and do pump tests. That data is submitted to the water agency, now WSA, and they evaluate the impact the proposed application for use will have on the ground water levels to try and ensure that the use will be sustainable."
He went on to say that Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) as far back as the 1960's undertook some of the first mapping projects of Canadian groundwater, placing the Canadian prairies in a good position for water management. Over 70 wells continuously monitor levels in prairie aquifers. According to Mr. Dybvig, groundwater levels have been relatively high in recent years, rising since the mid 2000's.
The agriculture industry draws on the groundwater resource. Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association (SIPA) provides a forum and support for crop producers that engage in irrigation. SIPA assists new irrigators through the permitting process with WSA. Ron Podbielski, Manager of Strategic Issues and Communications for the WSA explains how water is allocated, stating "The Water Security Agency Act ensures any use of water, with the exception of domestic uses, requires a Water Rights Licence." The Act, including Water Rights License application can be found on the WSA website (https://www.wsask.ca/Permits-and-Approvals/Regulatory-Info/Ground-Water-Approval-Process/). The WSA reports on conditions of the aquifers every other year, with a report due in 2019.
Climate effects are having an impact on groundwater, but these effects are not yet well understood, according to Margot Hurlbert, Canada's Tier I Research Chair on Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy. It makes sense to conserve fresh water where possible, whether through personal or industrial consumption.
Where it is possible for certain industrial applications to operate with brine water, such as "waterflooding' of mature oil and gas wells, we asked if Oil and Gas industry applicants had been directed toward the Quill Lakes to fill their needs. Mr. Podbielski advised that while the option has been discussed as part of strategy to relieve pressure on the embattled saline lakes, the majority of Oil and Gas production is at considerable distance from the Quills and it just does not make sense to haul the water over land. Even still, Margot Hurlbert encourages, "there is always a reason to be cautious about groundwater use for industry and utilizing brine instead of fresh sounds like a win-win."
All things considered, Wayne Dybvig believes we are doing a good job of managing our groundwater resource in the prairies. Dybvig should know, after all, he was the head of WSA for many years before his retirement. His final words, in typical Saskatchewan style, "then again, I might be biased".
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