Government plan fails to protect lower Athabasca River when most needed

New water management framework leaves river exposed to unacceptable risk

EDMONTON — The lower Athabasca River will continue to be exposed to significant risks under the Surface Water Quantity Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca River released today by the Governments of Alberta and Canada.

The long-overdue framework is intended to regulate water withdrawals by oilsands operators from the lower Athabasca River and achieves a number of objectives, but provides inadequate protection during the low-flow winter period, the river’s most sensitive time of the year.

The framework fails to include an ecosystem base flow (EBF), a critical low-flow limit at or below which the aquatic ecosystem requires all available water, and therefore is protected from water withdrawals.

Instead of including an EBF — a practice that would be consistent with world-leading water resource management — the plan gives precedence to water withdrawals of senior oilsands operations during these rare and sensitive low-flow periods. Regardless of how low flows drop in the river, the equivalent of over 1600 bathtubs of water per minute (4.4 cubic metres per second) is always permitted to be withdrawn.  

Implementing an EBF would be expected to rarely restrict water withdrawals from the lower Athabasca River, as the threshold considered in the most recent multi-stakeholder planning process was equivalent to a one-in-one hundred year low flow in the winter period. However on such rare occasions reduced habitat and oxygen levels can be expected to pose major threats to the river’s aquatic life.


“The new management framework for the lower Athabasca River presents an opportunity to protect the long-term health of the river,” said David Miller, President and CEO of WWF-Canada. “Setting an EBF, a minimum river flow threshold, is critical to ensuring good river management that protects water for wildlife and ecosystems. Unfortunately, it’s missing in the framework released today.”

“This framework does not align with the Government of Alberta’s regional plan of balancing economic development with ecosystem protection,” said Erin Flanagan, Pembina Institute analyst. “It is unclear how oilsands development can be undertaken responsibly — within science-based environmental limits — if Alberta does not have a minimum flow rate below which water withdrawals do not occur in the Athabasca River.”

“For about a one per cent increase in per-barrel capital costs, senior oilsands operators Suncor and Syncrude could build storage ponds to stop withdrawing from the river at its lowest flows,” said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association. “Instead, the Alberta and Canadian governments have chosen to leave this important river ecosystem at risk.”

"Limiting water withdrawals for a short period once in one hundred years is acceptable, especially when doing so is expected to result in significant benefits for the river and help operators secure social licence to operate,” said Bob Cameron of the South Peace Environment Association.


For more information on the role of lowest-flow water cut-offs in the protection of the Athabasca River, see this formal submission by the Pembina Institute and this report by WWF-Canada.


  • Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association, 403-921-9519, [email protected]
  • Erin Flanagan, Pembina Institute, 587-581-1701, [email protected]
  • Bob Cameron, South Peace Environment Association, 780-957-2292
  • For Interviews with David Miller, WWF-Canada, contact: Tammy Thorne, WWF-Canada Head of Communications, 416-489-4567 x 7276

About Pembina Institute

The Pembina Institute advances clean energy solutions through research, education, consulting and advocacy.

About Alberta Wilderness Association

AWA is the oldest wilderness conservation group in Alberta dedicated to the completion of a protected areas network and the conservation of wilderness throughout the province.

About South Peace Environment Association

SPEA is working to address air, water, and land management challenges in the Peace region and northern Alberta.

About WWF

WWF is creating solutions to the most serious conservation challenges facing our planet, helping people and nature thrive.