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Group Asks New Alberta Government to Review Oilsands Water Usage Amid Extreme Wild Fires

05/29/2015 12:00 EDT | Updated 05/29/2016 05:59 EDT

Conservation group Keepers of the Athabasca is asking the Alberta government to review water usage rules for oilsands companies as the province struggles with unseasonably low water levels and raging wild fires.

Current rules set out under the Surface Water Quantity Management Framework allow two oilsands majors, Suncor and Syncrude, to continue water withdrawals for their operations even when water levels are extremely low. All other oilsands operators are required to abide by set limits.

Alberta is currently fighting 65 forest fires, some near oilsands projects, that are being fueled by extremely dry conditions. Twenty fires are currently considered "out of control." This week the government initiated a province-wide fire ban. Water bombers are currently being used to suppress the flames.

"Due to little snowfall and almost no rain so far this spring, there has been little run off into the lakes, rivers and streams," Jesse Cardinal from Keepers of the Athabasca said. "Add in the major forest fires actively being fought around the province, and water is simply in great demand at this time."

Cardinal is asking the province if oilsands companies are required to slow production and water withdrawals from the Athabasca River in the face of low levels.

According to Simon Dyer from the Pembina Institute, Suncor and Syncrude insisted on the "seniority of their water licences" during development of the current water use rules.

The two companies argued "their reliance on old infrastructure should allow them to continue to withdraw water from the Lower Athabasca River, no matter how low the flow gets," Dyer wrote in a letter to Alberta Environment.

Dyer recommended the province implement a strong ecosystem limit that would place absolute restrictions -- for all oilsands operators -- on water withdrawal during low flow.

The provincial government ultimately declined to place a zero-withdrawal limit on the two companies and, according to Dyer, "continues to hold Syncrude and Suncor to a lower environmental standard...putting at risk the aquatic ecosystem of one of Alberta's most ecologically and culturally important rivers."

The Keepers of the Athabasca want to know if the NDP will consider revising water use rules in light of extreme conditions induced by climate change. The group argues current rules are based "on our once vibrant past when water was plentiful."

The limits placed on water withdrawals were also designed to protect aboriginal use of the Athabasca River for navigation and traditional activities. But according to John Rigney, resident of Fort Chipewyan, the water levels are too low to support traditional hunting.

"Spring hunts have been very poor due to poor navigation on the river -- we simply cannot get to our hunting spots because the water levels are so low in certain areas."

Rigney added the remote community of Fort Chipewyan is also facing difficulty importing food and supplies.

"We are a community that needs our supplies barged in and flown in," he said. "This time of year they're mostly barged in, but that is not happening right now, as the barge can't navigate, as water levels are so low."

This article originally appeared on DeSmog Canada.

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