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Understanding the Athabasca Watershed: Ponds and Dams in Focus 
AWC-WPAC, Science, and Watershed Issues | dams and watershed management | August 2023

Caity Seifert, Project Coordinator


The Athabasca Watershed, a sprawling 167,000-square-kilometer territory that accounts for about 24% of Alberta’s land, serves as a critical hub for natural resources and community life. With varying bodies of water like ponds and dams that play essential roles in industry, community, and environmental stability, it’s crucial to understand the intricacies of their management and the risks they pose. This blog post aims to summarize a comprehensive report on the state of ponds and dams in the Athabasca Watershed, written by Hugh Melville for his SAIT Integrated Water Management capstone project.  

Not Just Any Dam 

At first glance, the Athabasca Watershed seems to be home to a relatively small number of ponds and dams. Out of the 1,282 dams under Alberta’s regulatory purview, only 148 are found here. However, these dams hold or regulate a significant amount of fluid—12,569,717 cubic decameters (dam³) to be exact. That’s equivalent to the volume of approximately 5 million Olympic-sized pools and accounts for 60% of the Athabasca River’s total annual mean discharge. 

The Multifaceted Role of Dams 

Dams in the Athabasca Watershed serve various functions. Of the 41 Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (AEPA) regulated ponds and dams, over 20% are dedicated to habitat, 15% to lake stabilization, others also serve industrial (10%) and municipal needs (15%), showcasing their multifaceted roles. Despite their importance, dams are not without their challenges, posing risks to downstream communities and ecosystems. Most notably, the Paddle River Dam stands out as a structure of “very high” consequence, capable of causing significant environmental, economic, and human damage if breached.  

Industrial Activity and Its Risks 

The Athabasca Watershed is also a major industrial hub, especially for oil sands and coal sectors. Of the 166 dams managed by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) that were retrieved and analysed for this report, 107 are in this watershed. These AER-regulated dams hold an overwhelming 12,403,762 dam³ of fluid. Fluid types range from brine and process-affected water to raw water and tailings, each carrying varying degrees of environmental risk. Nearly a quarter of these dams have an extreme consequence rating, thereby amplifying their environmental risks and challenging their coexistence with habitats, municipal, and recreational uses. 

Why Should We Care? 

A breach in any dam with a high-consequence rating could result in catastrophic environmental, infrastructural, and human harm. For instance, the OBED Mountain coal mine breach revealed the presence of carcinogenic substances like heavy metals and hydrocarbons in its ponds. These are not only harmful to the environment but can also significantly impact human health. Therefore, meticulous monitoring, maintenance, and emergency preparedness are crucial. 

External Risks and Mitigations of Ponds and Dams 

Why We Should Pay Attention 

Dams and tailings ponds are integral for storing water and industrial waste, but when these structures fail, the consequences can be catastrophic. Understanding the potential risks and mitigation measures is vital for protecting both human lives and our environment. 

  1. Climate-Related Risks: 

Inflow Design Flood (IDF) 

Climate change alters precipitation patterns and increases extreme weather events, making it essential to reassess and revise the IDF for dams to ensure they can withstand changing conditions. 

Storage and Spill Capacity 

Extreme hydrological events exacerbated by climate change may exceed a dam’s existing storage or spillway capacity. 

Access Roads 

Climate change impacts road access to dams, potentially affecting their safety and operation. 

Cold Weather Operations 

Increased frequency of extreme cold weather events can affect gate equipment in dams, posing additional risks. 

Power Outage and Control Systems 

Extreme weather events like ice storms or high winds increase the risk of power outages that can jeopardize dam safety. 

  1. Risks Despite Monitoring 
  • Communication Gaps 

Dam safety risks may not always be effectively communicated to authorities. 

  • Financial Pressures 

Financial constraints can cause delays in necessary dam maintenance and repairs. 

  • Quality of Monitoring 

Poor equipment or untrained staff can compromise the quality of dam monitoring. 

  • Climate Mitigation Strategies 

Assess Local Climate Change Exposure 

Incorporate climate change projections into dam planning and design. 

  • Assess Infrastructure and Operations Impacts 

Use climate change projection data and risk assessment tools to identify vulnerabilities and take necessary measures. 

  • Regularly Update Assessments 

Since climate science is ever-evolving, it’s crucial to periodically review and update risk assessments and adaptation plans. 

Regulatory Landscape: Safeguarding Our Watersheds 

Effective management of ponds and dams within the Athabasca Watershed is a complex task that requires multi-layered oversight and regulation. In Alberta, multiple governing bodies and regulatory frameworks aim to ensure the safety and efficiency of these water-holding structures. 

Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) 

The AER primarily manages industrial dams, specifically focusing on those used for oil sands development, coal mining, and oil and gas operations. The body is dedicated to ensuring compliance with safety requirements and places people, property, and environmental protection as its top priorities. 

Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (AEPA) 

Unlike AER, AEPA oversees dams used for a wide range of non-industrial purposes like recreation and flood control. Their Dam Safety Regulatory System combines educational, preventive, and enforcement objectives to uphold safety standards. 

Key Legislation: Water Act & Water Ministerial Act 

The Water Act provides the baseline framework for managing Alberta’s water resources, including the rights to water diversion and usage. Meanwhile, the Water Ministerial Act establishes safety standards for dams and canals, particularly focusing on the prevention of economic, environmental, and life-threatening damage due to breaches. 

Alberta Dam and Canal Safety Directive 

This directive serves as a comprehensive guide for dam and canal safety, aiming to facilitate both compliance from owners and monitoring from regulators. 

Consequence Classification Ratings 

Owners are responsible for adhering to regulations determined partly by their dams’ consequence classification ratings. These ratings consider a variety of factors like downstream populations, environmental impact, and cultural values. 

The Role of the Canadian Dam Association (CDA) 

The CDA facilitates collaboration among dam owners, operators, and regulators. Through various initiatives like conferences and workshops, it fosters the exchange of expertise and contributes to long-term sustainability and safety of Canadian dams. 

Owner Responsibilities 

Non-compliance with regulations can lead to serious consequences, including fines, loss of licenses, and legal action. Hence, dam and pond owners must take safety protocols seriously to minimize risks. 

By understanding the existing regulations and the roles of various governing bodies, we can appreciate the rigorous measures in place to protect both the natural environment and human communities. As we move forward, continuing to comply with and improve upon these guidelines will be essential for the Athabasca Watershed’s sustainable future. 

The Path Forward 

Understanding the functions, volume, and risks associated with the ponds and dams in the Athabasca Watershed is vital for both sustainable industrial activity and community life. While many of these structures play important roles in our society, the associated risks cannot be ignored. Proper categorization, ongoing monitoring, and well-thought-out emergency plans are indispensable in minimizing the risks and safeguarding our communities and ecosystems. 

By taking a deep dive into these issues, we move a step closer to achieving a sustainable and safe balance between industrial needs and environmental preservation. After all, the health of our watersheds is a reflection of our shared values and future.