Yes, it’s in the ground, but it doesn’t stay there

There is a lot that scientists don’t know about ground water.

In Alberta, much of the ground water information that scientists rely on comes from the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC) mapping programs of the 1960s and 1970s.

“We really haven’t moved that far from the ’60s,” said Alec Blyth, a research hydrogeologist with the council’s Integrated Water Management Plan.

“We had a fantastic ground water branch. We were the envy of other provinces. They had a fantastic mapping program.”

Budget cuts, privatization and a decision to shuffle water mapping programs between government departments halted the water research.

What may be a bigger problem is getting a clear picture of how much ground water is being used, said Cathy Main, program leader with the Integrated Water Management Plan.

“How much ground water do we have? We can’t answer how much and we can’t answer how much we use.”

She said scientists need to determine the amount of ground water, how much is being replenished and how much is being extracted for livestock, drinking, industry and energy.

“Until we do that, we’ll have a lot of trouble understanding the impact we have.”

The common solution to rural ground water problems is to build a pipeline from cities, lakes or dams to ensure good, safe drinking water, but Blyth said pipelines are only a “Band-Aid solution.”

Pipelines provide good, clean drinking water, but they don’t create a sustainable future for communities, he added.

With many southern Alberta rivers closed to new water licences and a perception that governments will start reducing the amount of water allocated to each licence, the ARC believes water resources should be treated not as a garden hose that can be turned on at any time but as a finite resource that should be nurtured and studied.

“We live in the Palliser Triangle. When drought occurs, water flow on the rivers will be down,” Blyth said.

Agriculture is one of Alberta’s largest water users, using 45 percent of the province’s potable water. About five percent of the arable farmland uses 43 percent of the total water.

A 270-page report by the Council of Canadian Academies found that nearly 30 percent of Canada’s population, or about 10 million people, depend on ground water for the drinking supply.

More than 80 percent of the rural population relies on ground water for its entire water supply.

Blyth said there is no clear picture of how ground water is recharged or the location of recharge areas on the Prairies.

Main said scientists believe deep recharge zones in Manitoba are from the Rocky Mountains, while other shallower ground water areas are recharged from local lakes, sloughs and streams.

“It’s like a hose, but we don’t know where it’s coming in or how much is coming out,” she said.

Don Jones, field co-ordinator with the Integrated Water Management Plan, said a big problem is the lack of meters measuring how much ground water is used from house wells, farms and towns.

“We don’t even know how much water is being used in rural areas,” he said.

Each farm, house and acreage probably doesn’t use much but they have a cumulative effect.

An expert panel expressed this concern when it published a report on the sustainable management of ground water in Canada.

The panel was unable to identify an accurate estimate of the volume of ground water in Canada and found it difficult to obtain data on ground water use.

“It is apparent that there is a critical lack of data on ground water allocations, including municipal, industrial and agricultural allocation, on actual withdrawals of groundwater and on volumes discharged or reused,” said the report, which was published in May.

“Ground water cannot be managed effectively, at any scale, without these data, and the agencies responsible should assign a high priority in securing it.”

The report said more information is also needed on ground water quality and fixing a price on the value of ground water.

It said no national programs exist for tracking how many private wells have water treatment systems. According to various surveys, nitrates and bacteria are the most common well-water contaminants in Canada. It’s estimated 20 to 40 percent of rural wells have nitrate concentrations or coli form bacteria in excess of drinking water guidelines.

The report recommended that governments and municipalities adopt surface and ground water quality measurement programs to assess the current and developing threats to ground water quality.

Ground water statistics

Population growth and urbanization can lead to encroachment on rural and semi-rural areas.

The combination of increased hardened surfaces and increased ground water withdrawals may reduce the potential for ground water recharge and diminish the ability to sustain current streamflow rates in low-flow periods.

The graph shows a Langley, B.C. study of diminishing groundwater levels over a period of 40 years.

Key points from Sustainable Management of Ground water in Canada:

  • Nearly 10 million Canadians depend on ground water to supply drinking water, and more than 80 percent of the country’s rural population relies on ground water for its entire water supply.
  • Significant current and emerging stresses on Canada’s ground water include population growth and urbanization, agricultural intensification, impacts related to hydrocarbon production and the growing impact of climate change.
  • There is limited information regarding the valuation of water in Canada and no current information on valuation by users of ground water.
  • There is a critical lack of data on ground water allocations, actual withdrawals of ground water and volumes discharged or reused. Ground water cannot be managed effectively without this data, and the agencies responsible should assign a high priority to their collection, says the ground water report.

See the full report at

About the author

Markets at a glance


Stories from our other publications