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Regional Groundwater Sustainability

Overview

In situ oil sands producers in the Southern Athabasca Oil Sands (SAOS) region use fresh/non-saline and saline groundwater from aquifers for makeup water. Operators must understand the long-term availability of the aquifers, including what may be required by other operators, water use rates, production forecasts, and advances in technologies to reduce water requirements.

In 2013, COSIA’s Regional Groundwater Solutions (RGS) project began to advance the understanding of groundwater resource utilization and management. It used a numerical groundwater flow model to simulate water distribution and pressure in key aquifers used for oil sands water withdrawals and disposal in the SAOS.

In 2016, the team updated an existing Alberta Environment and Parks (Monitoring Branch) SAOS regional groundwater model to improve its predictive capabilities and reduce uncertainty. In March 2017, the improved model was returned to Alberta Environment and Parks.

The Technology

Three potential water forecasts were developed and simulated to explore uncertainty in future growth of in situ oil sands production in the SAOS region: Status Quo, Medium Growth and High Growth.

Forecasts covered 62 years (from 2013 to 2075). Timing of peak effects varied, but in general occurred between 2030 and 2040.

Objective

The objective of the RGS project was to evaluate the potential range of change in aquifer pressures from groundwater withdrawals and disposal associated with future in situ oil sands production in the SAOS region.

Potential/Actual Environmental Benefits

  • Improve and reduce groundwater use by industry
  • Identify potential problem areas and opportunities for better groundwater use
  • Provide a baseline for evaluation of future monitoring data.

Outcomes

  • The SAOS regional groundwater flow model has been significantly updated through structural improvements, automated calibration and recent history matching
  • The model update incorporated the best available science and now provides a leading-edge technical tool for evaluation of groundwater flow
  • The updated model is available for use by COSIA member companies and Alberta Environment and Parks
  • Model forecasts indicate there are sufficient groundwater resources to meet the future demands of in situ oil sands projects (under these scenarios) while ensuring future sustainability of the aquifers
  • Predicted areas of pressure reduction beyond the benchmark were localized, and can be dealt with at the individual project level and are addressed through existing regulation.