State of the Athabasca Watershed
This report is a gathering of information on the Athabasca Watershed from currently available sources, and is a contribution to Keepers of the Athabasca by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta. As new information is found it will be added to the online version of the report.


The report begins with a description of some sites of special value in the watershed, as well as the more general values of the river and lake. It then goes on to describe the activities past and current in the watershed and the resulting effects on water quality. Pollutants of most concern appear to be nitrogen, sulphur and organic materials from municipal sewage and pulp mills, which cause a decline of oxygen in the river, especially in winter and negatively affects fish and other organisms. Nitrogen and sulphur also cause acid rain, which is acidifying soils, lakes and rivers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Of equal concern are arsenic, mercury, and selenium, which are released by industry, resulting in above natural quantities. These are toxic to wildlife and the people that depend on them. Also included in this list are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic and associated with the development of the tar sands and tailings ponds; and uranium, which is a result of past mining on the east side of Lake Athabasca that has not been appropriately cleaned up. The inadequacy of adequate monitoring of pollutants in the watershed, and lack of information on groundwater and tailings ponds, and the relationship between these two is of particular concern.

Quantity of water in the basin is also an issue, especially with respect to climate change and the large and increasing demands of industry, particularly in the tar sands area. Schindler et al. (2007) estimate that the amount of water in the river has declined by almost 30% in 35 years. Related to this is a concern that there is no requirement for maintaining adequate flow needs when water levels are low to maintain the ecological integrity of the Athabasca River.

The cumulative effects of industry activities in the watershed are negatively affecting wildlife such as caribou and fish. There is a lack of a scientifically designed network of areas protected from industrial use in the watershed and some possible solutions are presented.

» State of the Athabasca Watershed (4.2Mb PDF)
I. Values of the Watershed
This chapter provides a general description of the Athabasca watershed's physical features, human demographics and wildlife inhabitants. It identifies some environmentally significant areas and wildlife, and concludes with a glimpse into traditional livelihoods.

The Athabasca River, from its origins in the Rocky Mountains to its termination in Lake Athabasca, is an interprovincial waterway of National Significance. It is one of the largest, longest, most diverse and productive river valley systems in the Mixed Wood Boreal Forest of Canada. Provincial, federal and international levels of government and other organizations have identified various lakes, rivers and lands in the Athabasca Watershed as Environmentally Significant Areas. Their values are described in detail in the full report.

About 13% of the population in the Athabasca sub-basin are Aboriginal. The Athabasca watershed includes lands covered by Treaties 6, 8 and 10. There are fifteen First Nations with over forty reserves. Traditional fishing, trapping, duck hunting and transportation are threatened by increasing industrial and municipal demands on the Athabasca watershed. Chapter 1 includes first-hand stories from people who have witnessed these changes.
II. Water Quality
Water quality refers collectively to the amounts of suspended solids, nutrients, minerals, microorganisms, chemicals, pesticides and other substances that enter the water from natural sources and as a result of human activities.

This chapter provides an overview of current and proposed human activities in the Athabasca River Basin, examines the contaminants produced, and analyzes resultant water quality in terms of human health and environmental impacts.

Conventional and tar sands oil and gas extraction, forestry, agriculture, pulp and paper production, coal and uranium mining, municipal sewage disposal and proposed nuclear plants are human activities of concern. Current contaminates affecting water quality range from phosphorus, nitrogen, PCBs, dioxins and furons, mercury, selenium, hydrocarbons and acids to arsenic, pesticides and uranium. A summary table of impact areas and associated stressors in the Athabasca River Basin is provided. Diagrams and charts of contaminant discharge by name, geographic location and quantity are also included.

Concerns about the effects of tailing ponds, groundwater, dissolved oxygen in the river and acid rain on water quality are discussed, along with related human and wildlife health issues.
III. Water Quantity
Water quantity is crucial to the survival of the Athabasca watershed. This chapter begins with data collected over the past forty years on water levels throughout the watershed, and the reasons for fluctuations over time. It goes on to discuss Lake Athabasca and the Peace Athabasca Delta in detail, describing the historic and residual impacts of the upstream Peace River hydroelectric dams, and current pressure of oil sands water mining.

The chapter also discusses ground water issues. The flow of water between aquifers of varying depths in not well understood, because hydrogeology studies in the region have just begun. Despite the unknown effects of withdrawing too much water, oil sands production is ever-increasing its demands on aquifers. Potential consequences of continued ground water reliance are reviewed.

The water quantity discussion is concluded with a look at the impact of global warming on the Athabasca watershed.
IV. Land of the Athabasca Watershed
This chapter provides an overview of the diverse ecosystems that make up the Athabasca, who owns these lands, how the land is being used, and what effects these activities have on the watershed.

Focused discussion begins with a general description of petroleum industry effects on the land, and then delves into specific demands that conventional oil and gas, and tar sands extraction make on ecosystems within the watershed.

Forestry effects on the land conclude this review of Athabasca watershed lands.
V. Conclusions and References
The Athabasca watershed has many values, and is rich in resources. The development of these resources is not taking the environment into account adequately. As a result some toxins have already reached dangerous levels and others are increasing. We have not set aside enough areas that are protected from industrial use. It is time to take a pause in making decisions on further new developments in the watershed until the environmental values are taken care of now and for the future.

The longer we wait to do this, the harder it will be.