Is Alberta’s relationship with water broken?



A few years ago, I took a helicopter flight over the oil sands on a bright and chilly February afternoon. As we departed from the Fort McMurray airport, the sky was blue and the sun strong. I remember looking down in wonderment at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers at Rocke Island as we passed over the northwest tip of the city. The rivers were covered in clean white ice and under the winter sun projected a kind of natural purity. The higher the chopper climbed the more the beautiful emptiness of northern Alberta was revealed; boreal forest stretched as far as the eye could see, although the sky did appear to lose its light blue shade in the north. As we headed that direction, the entire atmosphere began to take on a dull unpolished silverware colour. Soon, perhaps 40 kilometres north of the airport, we were over the Suncor plant, where it became obvious what was discolouring the sky.


We want it – water, that is – both ways. We want it pure but we want it to do our dirty work.

Pollution, of the carbon variety. The Suncor plant was – and still is, of course – bulked up against the banks of the Athabasca River, and so too are its tailings ponds, the effluent lakes that contain untold amounts of toxic semi-liquid that we still don’t quite know what to do with (and which are bulging at their seams; Pond C at Suncor has had two major spills in the last five years, releasing hundreds of thousands of litres of contaminated water into the Athabasca). I came away from that flight troubled by many things, not the least of which was seeing, side by side, the best and worst of water and what we’ve done to it. The river looked so quiet, so peaceful, flowing under its winter skin right beside the greyish brown slurry of the unfrozen, steaming tailings ponds. Belching plumes and flare stacks gave the entire vision an underworld overtone.

We went north and circled for another half hour or so, over the Syncrude and CNRL sites. The pilot eventually turned south and we followed the river until we passed Suncor again. From high above, as if I used the vast scale to properly understand it all, it struck me that we simply don’t have any respect for water. Yes, our relationship with water has to be infinitely more complex than that. Therapists trot out a wide variety of terms to describe relationships – romantic, symbiotic, parasitic, dominant, toxic, controlling, co-dependent, addictive, transactional…and there are even a few healthy ones. This is no romantic comedy, sure, but the genre’s basic plot question is relevant: We love water. We can’t live without water. But where exactly is this relationship headed?

It would not be accurate to describe Alberta’s relationship with water in the past as romantic; our provincial water history is glorious and adventurous, littered with epic stories of heartache, hardship and triumph. The first highways of Alberta, long before European contact, were its rivers, the rivers of the North and South Saskatchewan, Peace/Slave and Athabasca basins, principally. They were arteries of transportation and commerce, and later westward expansion and even nation-building. The province and the country would not exist as we know them today had Alberta’s river system not so perfectly supported the creation of a country running east-west, rather than the north-south alignment that history alone might have dictated.

Despite being a province known today for mountains and oil, our history is deeply tied to the elemental current of flowing water.

The romantic aspect of this relationship began to suffer when, inevitably, population growth and commercial interests found ways to scale up in the province. Irrigation changed everything. For decades it was thought that the area known as Palliser’s Triangle (which roughly stretches from the southern border of both Alberta and Saskatchewan north to Edmonton and Saskatoon) was not suitable for sustaining a significant number of people. Nothing but scrub grew there. It was the Irish explorer John Palliser who, in an 1857-59 expedition, deemed the area to be too arid for agriculture or even significant habitation. “But all that changed through intensive irrigation,” notes the acclaimed water scientist David Schind­ler, now retired from the University of Alberta but still active in research. “If you look at the population in southern Alberta, there are just too many people. We always hear how growth is good, but we never hear anyone ask where the water is going to come from for that growth. The South Saskatchewan is already an unhealthy river. The average summer flow has already declined between 70-80 per cent and as we get less snow and ice pack, that flow will continue to decrease. But if we keep increasing our population in the south, well, that’s a very unhealthy combination.”

Along with population growth in areas unsuited to the development, Alberta has seen rampant industrial growth in vastly unpopulated areas, which is where our relationship with water has begun to take on shades of the addictive. Last December, I visited Dr. Kate Neville, an assistant professor in political science, in her office at the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment. Her research revolves around the notion of trust in negotiations between remote, smaller communities and multinationals that want to exploit resources in these areas; she has done work on biofuels in East Africa and is now focusing on fracking and water issues in the Canadian North. I asked her about what’s happening in and around Alberta and she noted that when she thinks about the Athabasca River and the tailings ponds, she wonders if we understand water systems at all. The river, she says, “is just so vulnerable.”


But perhaps illustrating a more complex relationship with water, land, and indigenous rights, she told me, “We can look to Fort McKay. Unlike some of the downstream communities along the Athabasca River, such as Fort Chipewyan, this community is not just bearing the costs of upstream development. They are actively involved in the developments, as contractors and partners in oil sands developments.” What Neville found in her research was that the decision to participate in the carbon economy was made under duress: If they didn’t participate in gaining economic benefits, they’d be stranded amidst the developments, bearing the environmental costs and gaining none of the benefits. It was happening with them or without them, so they jumped into the ring. The indigenous groups decided that if they had to bear the costs, like it or not, then they might as well at least get something out of it. “To me,” said Neville, “that seems to illustrate some of the ways in which we interact with water – we participate in certain kinds of systems that we otherwise wouldn’t support, because we feel there is no real choice.” So a strained relationship with water is, in many cases, not even entered into willingly…although of course the river has never really had a say, either. It’s an arranged marriage, a forced and unloving bond.

Dams are also highly indicative of our tortured relationship with water. Most environmentally minded people would say that dams represent “green power,” which has to be better than gas, coal and oil. But dams bring their own complications. Ecosystems are deeply compromised, as are fisheries. Various natural landscapes are altered forever. Forests are submerged, releasing methane. “My greatest concern with dams, though,” adds Neville, “is that for something like the new Site C dam along the Peace River, it seems as though much of the energy produced by a new dam on the Peace River won’t be to power homes and reduce fossil fuel use, but instead will be used to power extractive industries. Do we really need this power, or are we causing all this disruption to provide cheap energy to make it more economically viable to extract more oil and gas? This, it seems to me, is a great example of our very complicated relationship with water and energy and our economic development trajectory.”

Probably the smartest and most immediate mind-check we can do is this: Let’s realize that water is scarce. This partner is hard to find, whether it’s in California, Saudi Arabia or Alberta. After all, even though 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is water, 97 per cent of that is salt water. Roughly two-thirds of the remainder – the Earth’s fresh water supply, in other words – is held in snow and glaciers. That means of all the water on Earth, about one per cent of it is available to us for our use. And that isn’t taking into account how our activities are severely compromising even that one per cent. Alberta has issues, as we know, but a place that might speak most clearly to our compromised relationship with water would be southern California. The state is home to 40 million people and on top of the water needed for all those people, it is the garden of the country and for much of the world. Fruits, vegetables and vineyards demand massive amounts of water. California produces well over 90 per cent of the almonds, pistachios, walnuts, broccoli, strawberries, grapes and tomatoes consumed in the United States every year (not to mention that it exports considerable quantities of these goods). Based on how much water it takes to bring a crop to maturity, it’s estimated that growing a single walnut requires the use of nearly 19 litres of fresh water, a single pistachio nearly three litres.

There are various complications here to consider beyond the thirst of some of these crops. California is in its fifth consecutive year of severe drought. Winter snows in the Sierras would typically refill empty reservoirs, but the snowpack has been dropping for years. This has also led to forest and brush fires (which take massive amounts of water to put out). The Colorado River, once the lifeblood of the region, is now so compromised that most years it no longer reaches its estuary in Baja California, Mexico. The aquifers of California are in a state of depletion, though no one is quite sure how bad it is. This also raises the question of how the North American Free Trade Agreement will impact our water resources, since it remains in dispute whether or not the U.S. can one day legally demand export of our water (it hinges on the definition of water as a “good,” which is what a resource becomes once it’s commercialized). California has embarked on a pioneering program of water conservation, with some success, but the state’s current usage remains unsustainable.Many researchers are rethinking the nature of the entire agricultural framework in California and other water-compromised regions, in that the growth and export of a product – an almond, an avocado, a tomato – represents a de facto export of water.

But these problems won’t affect us in Alberta, right? We have so much water. There is water everywhere. Huge rivers. Big lakes. Right?

Well, yes and no. Here we might need some counselling to understand what our relationship is truly about and who our partner actually is. In some ways, it’s a long distance relationship. According to the Alberta Department of Environment and Parks’ document, Water For Life, more than 80 per cent of Alberta’s water supply is found in the northern part of the province, while 80 per cent of the demand is in the south. Both water regions, however, are being ill-treated. We are learning more all the time about the contamination along the Athabasca basin, but we hear a lot less about the contamination of the southern basins in feedlot alley. In other words, rivers are receptacles for the manure-infused runoff produced by the feedlots. Alberta’s wetlands are also under massive pressure from land development, industrial development and human settlement.

Wetlands the province over have been drained, paved over or farmed. “Although we are more aware than ever of the importance of wetlands,” notes Water For Life, “their loss continues in Alberta. Approximately 64 per cent of the wetlands in the settled area of Alberta no longer exist.”

“We’re just so caught up in production cycles that we don’t even have the political environment in which to rationally discuss the nature of growth,” says Schindler. “It’s craziness. To live sustainably we have to start directing population growth and industry where there is water. With our eco-footprint, we’re using resources that belong to others in the world. Sharing equitably would give everyone in the world two hectares of land each. In Canada, we each take nine hectares. For everyone on the planet to live like an Albertan, we’d need 3.5 planets.” The Alberta Wilderness Centre concurs, noting that Albertans increased their ecological footprint by 76 per cent between 1961 and 2003. In fact, Alberta’s footprint per person is the fourth largest in the world, 21 per cent larger than the average Canadian even. “A major problem,” adds Schindler, “is that no politician will ever say we need to curb growth.”

This may well be, sadly, the unbridgeable gap between the needs of the environment and the reality of the electoral cycle. No politician will spend the political capital the issue requires when they will not realize any of the benefit of that spending. The electoral cycle is intimately tied to our relationship with water in ways we likely give little thought to, in the same way that in the excitement of dating someone new we might not be thinking how we’re going to make this last a lifetime. The problem is that there is little political reward for genuine environmental action and conservation, because of the slow rate of return. Every politician knows what he or she should do, and will routinely invoke doing the right thing for “our grandchildren,” but not many of them do it because the fruits of their actions won’t be realized for one, two, three decades (when some other politician will take the credit).

There is an unbridgeable gap between the needs of the environment and the reality of the electoral cycle. No politician will spend the political capital the issue requires when they will not realize any of the benefit of the spending.

The shadow side of not committing to slow success is “slow violence,” a theory put forward by Rob Nixon, a professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute, in his 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon’s central thesis is that we need to grasp and rethink the slow violence of environmental degradation that occurs “gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” This is so often, he argues, a violence perpetrated against not just the powerless, but all of us. “Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, biomagnification, deforestation, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes present formidable representational obstacles that can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively.” The impact of the death and destruction from these events that has resulted and will result long after we’re gone is lessened in both memory and strategic thinking, he argues, simply because it happens over decades, not days. So how, he asks, can we turn the “long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political ­inter­vention, these emergencies whose repercussions have given rise to some of the most critical challenges of our time?”

It’s a good question which demands, dare we say, the most urgent slowly unfolding answer imaginable. (Much of Nixon’s response revolves around the power of literature to create connections of insight across vast temporal gulfs.) But let’s imagine a scenario in Alberta and the action that would result if there was a catastrophic breach of a tailings pond along the Athabasca which led to deaths and the ruination of the river. There would be public outcries, action, possibly even political and socio-economic policy changes. Nixon’s thesis would be that this environmentally related violence, on this scale, with this kind of damage, is already being perpetrated here. The reason we aren’t outraged into action is that it’s too great a temporal leap to see the result a generation down the line. Because it happens over decades we don’t find it alarming. We’re lulled into inaction, much like the fable of the frog cooked alive in a pot of water because it came to a boil so gradually the frog didn’t notice.

Thoughts of what happens out of sight lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking in the common parlance. Fracking is a water-intensive process. The industry website explains fracking thus: “Hydraulic fracturing is a safe, proven and government-regulated technology that has been used in Canada for more than 60 years. In hydraulic fracturing, fluids are injected at pressures that exceed the natural stresses on the rock and cause it to crack, or fracture … After the hydraulic fracturing process, the fracturing fluids are recovered … The hydrocarbons trapped inside the rocks can now flow more easily through the cracks to the wellbore.” The website notes that over 175,000 wells have been “stimulated” through fracking in Alberta and B.C., which is relevant since aquifers and geological strata do not observe provincial borders. Last year, travelling through rural Texas, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a hydraulic fracturing rig manager for Halliburton. He’d been with the company for years, between tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. We talked about fracking and he told me that “no one really knows the whole story. It gets so much bad press, but all we do is put sand down there and bring water and oil back up, that’s all.”


Yet fracking remains a highly controversial practice, not least due to (recent) earthquakes in Alberta’s fracking zone, which caused the Alberta Energy Regulator to temporarily halt fracking at times in the region. Earthquakes aside, it’s usually water and its potential contamination that is the focal point for the debate around fracking. Kate Neville pointed me to the work of Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality, and Erika Weinthal, a professor of environmental policy, both at Duke University. Vengosh and Weinthal have been looking closely at the issue of water contamination in fracking and what they are finding is disturbing. Their work is telling us that we should be worried not just about the chemicals being added to ground water and aquifers through the fracking process, but that there are chemicals in ancient and fossil water, kilometres underground, that is mixed with fracking fluids in the extraction process and some of which is then inevitably dumped into the surface water. There are naturally apprehensions that fracking chemicals mix with the aquifers, though industry argues it’s not a concern. That is open to debate, but here’s where it gets really worrying. Most of the water that gets pumped down those wells comes back up. Some of it will go back into deep well injection, but some of it ends up in surface water and waterways. Some of it is spilled. Some of it is treated. There is contamination potential, though, again, industry disputes this. But the main concern, say Vengosh and Weinthal, is that they are finding radioactive isotopes in the ancient water, such as barium and ladium, which then get mixed into our surface water. This water, holding these isotopes, then goes downstream to a municipality with a water treatment plant that, naturally, treats the water with chlorine, iodine and other water purification substances. These plants are not equipped to deal with ­radioactive contaminants and toxic by-products are created.

At this point, their research is still trying to determine the level of contamination, but the key point is that this is not even something industry has on its radar. “It’s not as if industry has put something toxic in the water and they’re denying it,” says Neville. “It’s that the entire process is not isolated. It’s connected to the whole water system and is connected to other things downstream.”

Adele Hurley, the Director of the Program on Water Issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto, points out that water issues are also partly about national security. In an op-ed for the Globe and Mail in December 2015, she noted that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, and that “temperature records invite Canadians to rethink the importance of groundwater… (though) in many parts of the country, long-term monitoring of vital aquifers is almost non-existent. The governments of British Columbia and Alberta, for example, permit oil and gas companies to fracture shale in regions where groundwater hasn’t been properly quantified … yet science shows us that all oil and gas well casings leak over time and that these leaking wells serve as pathways for contaminants that can put groundwater at risk for thousands of years. Energy companies can also legally hide groundwater contamination by giving well owners cash for damages and having them sign non-disclosure agreements. Hundreds of such agreements have been signed in Alberta. Climate change is breaking temperature records, affecting our water resources and contributing to economic volatility. Investment in the protection of groundwater is a form of national security. Like much in life, this security comes with a price.”

“Anyway,” Neville told me, almost as an afterthought, “fracking shouldn’t be the only focus, because these contaminants from ancient water are introduced into our water system by every aspect of the oil and gas industry.”

None of this is helped by the fact that industry rarely allows independent scientists access to sites. This has the unfortunate, but perhaps not unwarranted, consequence of creating public mistrust of industry science on water issues. It’s a relationship being poisoned on many levels.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The relationship still has a chance to move away from the toxic and become reciprocal. There are signs we are starting to understand as a species that, gosh, we might not actually have this down pat. Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, for all the right-wing scorn it received, captures some of this in what is a surprisingly hopeful document, even if you disagree with her fundamental thesis that neoliberal market capitalism and environmental degradation are monogamously linked. If I had to hazard a summation of a dense and exhaustively researched 600-page book into a couple of sentences, it might be that Klein views market capitalism as a carbon-intensive, consumption-excessive model that has led to a fulcrum point of environmental disaster and that we have to change now, not just our thinking about the environment, but about market capitalism. The hopeful part of her book draws examples from all over the globe about bottom-up activism and local government policy that has stepped into the void created by the inaction of governments and multi nationals.

What does this have to do with water? It’s because water is at the heart of every single connection we make in this world, whether that be human, intellectual or economic. In the early summer of 2015 I stood on a dock looking at the confluence of moving waters in the strait between Sonora Island and Stuart Island, not far from Campbell River on Vancouver Island. In this particular spot, Cordero Channel, Bute Inlet and Calm Channel meet up just south of the Yaculta Rapids and the Arran Rapids. This channel is perhaps 750 metres wide and it’s viciously tidal and bone-chillingly cold even in summer. Seals lounge on a rocky spit half a kilometre out into the channel. Eagles circle looking for salmon. Mountains soar all around. But mostly one is hypnotized by the movement of the water. In the mornings, the tide surges southeast, ripping with energy as if it were a river rapids. It’s scenic but deadly; getting caught in it would be the end of you. The same is true later in the day when the tide changes and the current reverses, heading northwest. I stood there every day, mesmerized, watching the water flow one way, then the other later in the day. It didn’t hit me until I’d watched it a few times that its metaphorical power lay in our own deeply contradictory natures. We want it – water, that is – both ways. We want it pure but we want it to do our dirty work. I recalled the opening lines of one of the greatest novels ever written, The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence.

The river flowed both ways. The current moved from the north to the south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river watching.

Our human river flows both ways. We are compelled to conquer, grow and win. But we also have a species instinct to survive, nurture and thrive. One of these requires that we treat partners with respect, but water is no longer properly loved in this relationship. The commodification of water has altered that, probably forever. Water is now the companion we take for granted, that we abuse, that we seek to control. It’s hard to imagine we’ll suddenly wake up and adopt a pre-contact indigenous attitude of respect and reverence for water. Our obsession with growth (what Nixon calls turbo-capitalism) makes that unlikely; try to imagine the ridicule facing the next politician who campaigns on negative growth. But there are certainly reasons for guarded optimism, if only because humans appear to grasp that surviving is better than not surviving. There are signs of behaviour modification that indicate we have the capacity to change if the evidence is there and the public mood is strong enough to force political change (since politicians will always follow public mood and call it leadership). Tobacco, seat belts, minority rights – there are any number of examples of how society can change, and change now, if the dialogue and the environment both dictate and facilitate it.

Perhaps it will be this way with water. Perhaps the fulcrum will suddenly tip and everything will flow, as it were, in one direction. Well, in fact, that fulcrum has to tip. There must be a shift in our relationship with water, but it’s likely going to happen for one reason and one reason only – not because we’re getting smarter or more ethical, or because we’re finally learning to care for the next generation or because new technology will enable it. It’ll shift because we will finally recognize what is already a fact: We have no choice. We are nothing without water. Literally nothing. This issue – how should Albertans go about creating a new relationship with water – is not about environmentalism or activism. It’s about relationships. Who knows, maybe we can make this one work. We just have to be honest with one another.

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