About the Watershed
The Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca watershed is located in north central Canada. It drains an area of about 269,000 square kilometers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and a small portion of the Northwest Territories. Taken in its entirety, the Athabasca watershed includes many different ecosystems from its headwaters at the Columbia Ice Fields, through alpine meadows and mountain forests in the Rocky Mountains, to the boreal forests and peat lands of northeastern Alberta, and to the Peace Athabasca Delta, before pooling into Lake Athabasca.
The Athabasca River is 1375 kilometers long. Several major tributaries include the McLeod, Pembina, Lesser Slave and Clearwater Rivers. Lake Athabasca has an area of 7935 square kilometers. The Athabasca River drainage basin occupies 271,617.2 km2 and covers 22.8% of the province of Alberta.
The People of the Athabasca
According to the 2001 census, there were over 155,000 people living in the Athabasca watershed. Within the Municipality of Wood Buffalo (the lower Athabasca River region), the population has more than doubled in the past ten years to a 2006 total of 79,810 people, a growth of 114% (RMWB 2006, from Timoney, 2007).
The largest community is Fort McMurray, Alberta, with a population of more than 41,000. Hinton and Whitecourt, also in Alberta, are the next largest population centers, with approximately 9000 and 8000 inhabitants, respectively.
About 13% of the population in the Athabasca sub-basin are Aboriginal peoples. Metis live in both the Alberta and Saskatchewan portions of the watershed. Fifteen First Nations on lands covered by Treaties 6, 8 and 10, are found on over forty reserves within the Athabasca area.
Industry in the Watershed
The Athabasca sub-basin is rich in nonrenewable and renewable resources, which are extracted and/or exploited by various industries. The conventional oil and gas industry is active in many parts of the basin, and significant oil sands development occurs in the area north of Fort McMurray. Coal is mined in the upper reaches of the Athabasca sub-basin near Hinton and Edson. Forestry is a major industrial activity in much of the basin. The forests of the sub-basin support several sawmills and panel board factories, as well as four pulp mills and one newsprint mill. Agriculture is an important land use in the Pembina River watershed and accounts for about 12% of the total area of the sub-basin. Commercial fishing and trapping also occur in the Athabasca sub-basin.
Until recently, uranium mining was an important industry in the Athabasca sub-basin, at Cluff Lake in northern Saskatchewan, and in earlier times, in the area north of Lake Athabasca. The Cluff Lake mine closed in 2002 and has now entered the decommissioning phase. Mining in the Beaverlodge area ended in 1982. New mines are being proposed for the watershed.