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Updated November 2022


On this page, we discuss the following:

How Water is Allocated in Alberta

Water allocations are the maximum volume of nonsaline water that can be diverted under existing Water Act licences. What the allocations are used for depends on the type of development in that geographic area. For example, agricultural operations occur mainly in southern and central Alberta, and oil sands development mainly in the northeast. Enhanced oil recovery is active across much of Alberta.

When energy companies apply to use nonsaline water, they must state the maximum volume of water needed annually to sustain their project throughout its life cycle. Companies determine the maximum annual volume based on the year with the highest water demand during the project's life cycle, including a contingency buffer. Consequently, the actual water use will be less than the allocated maximum annual volume during years of low water demand.

Because of its need for large volumes of nonsaline water, oil sands mining accounts for 70 per cent of the energy sector's total allocation. The allocations for the other extraction methods are 10 per cent hydraulic fracturing, 8 per cent enhanced oil recovery, and 5 per cent in situ operations. The remaining 7 per cent of water is allocated for other energy development purposes, such as coal mining/processing, pipeline integrity testing, and hydrocarbon processing.

The following maps show the proportion of surface and groundwater available and allocated to the energy sector in Alberta as a percentage. The data are shown at a watershed scale known as a hydrologic unit code (HUC). This classification is based on a system developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) that divides an area into smaller and smaller hydrologic units. The Government of Alberta adapted the system for use in Alberta. The province has four HUCs, from coarsest to finest level: HUC 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Surface Water Availability and Allocations

Surface water refers to water that is on the land, such as water in rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Its availability is estimated based on the annual median volume of surface runoff (runoff from both rain and snowmelt). Water availability information is based on the Agriculture Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Annual Unit Runoff in Canada – 2013.

The runoff volume reflects the natural state of watersheds and rivers and does not account for flow regulation structures, such as dams.

The local surface water availability values do not include runoff from upstream watersheds contributing to the local HUC 8. However, this information is important when determining the total surface water available within the local HUC 8, and therefore is included in the cumulative surface water availability data.

Surface water allocations represent the maximum volume of surface water licensed for diversion from rivers, lakes, and wetlands. These allocations are compared to availability as a proportion of local and cumulative surface water allocated to local and cumulative surface water availability. Comparing surface water allocation to surface water availability helps identify potential water-short (constrained) areas.

Groundwater Availability and Allocations

Groundwater availability is based on the average volume of water from rainfall and snowmelt that enters (recharges) the groundwater system within the sediments above bedrock and in the bedrock within 150 m of the surface. After moving through the groundwater system, much of this water eventually replenishes surface water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Groundwater availability in the deeper part of the groundwater system has not been assessed at this point. This deeper groundwater is generally over 1000 years old and not recharged by local precipitation events.

Groundwater allocations represent the maximum volume of groundwater that is licensed for diversion. Groundwater allocations are split into two groups because availability is only determined for the shallow part of the groundwater system. The first group is allocations from water wells in the sediments above bedrock and in the bedrock within 150 m of the ground surface. These allocations are compared to availability. The second group is allocations from water wells in the bedrock that are more than 150 m deep. These allocations are not compared to groundwater availability.

Comparing groundwater allocation to groundwater availability helps identify areas where allocations exceed availability, which can then be further investigated. For example, in northeast Alberta, the watersheds that contain most of the oil sands mines show more groundwater allocation than availability. A closer review reveals that this is because the groundwater level (or water table) must be lowered to dig and maintain the open pit mines. The water that is removed is considered a groundwater allocation and exceeds the volume of water entering the groundwater system.

While data on groundwater allocation is available across the entire province, availability information has not yet been determined for areas in northern Alberta. Where groundwater availability has not yet been determined, the proportion allocated will show that availability is not yet mapped. Updates to groundwater availability will be included as they become available from the Alberta Geological Survey.

Nonsaline Water Use

The following map (as opposed to the preceding maps showing availability or allocations) shows the actual use of nonsaline water in Alberta in 2021 to extract oil, gas, and bitumen based on HUC 8 areas.