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TitleQuantifying saline groundwater seepage to surface waters in the Athabasca oil sands region
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsJasechko, S., Gibson J. J., Birks S. J., & Yi Y.
Pagination8 pages
Date Published06/2012
PublisherApplied Geochemistry
Publication Languageeng
KeywordsAlberta Innovates, AOSTRA, ARC, Athabasca River, groundwater, hydrogeology, salinity, seepage, sodicity, tributaries

Western Canadian oil sands contain over 170 billion barrels of proven unconventional petroleum reserves currently extracted at 1.8 million barrels per day by either surface mining, or by in situ techniques that require subsurface injection of steam and hydrocarbon solvents. Natural high-salinity springs are known to add water and entrained inorganic and organic constituents to the Athabasca River and its tributaries in the region of ongoing bitumen production. However, the magnitude and synoptic distribution of these saline inputs has remained unquantified. Here, a chloride mass balance is used to estimate saline ground- water discharge to the Athabasca River from 1987 to 2010. Results show that the highest saline water discharge rate to the Athabasca River occurs between Ft. McMurray and the Peace-Athabasca Delta, sup- ported by subcrop exposure of lower Cretaceous- and Devonian-aged formations bearing saline waters. Further, the input of saline groundwater is found to be an important control on the chemistry of the lower Athabasca River, despite comprising 10 1 to 3% of the Athabasca River’s discharge. The flux of natural sal- ine groundwater entering the Athabasca does not appear to have increased or decreased from 1987 to 2010. The origin of seep salinity is interpreted as relict subglacial meltwater that has dissolved Devo- nian-aged evaporites, supported by saline Na-Cl type waters with low 18O/16O and 2H/1H ratios relative to modern precipitation. The magnitude of groundwater discharge and its impact on the Athabasca River’s chemistry in the area of ongoing bitumen development warrants the incorporation of natural groundwater seepages into surface water quality monitoring networks.

Locational Keywords

Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR)

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