“We’re looking at baseline conditions prior to development so that companies have a better understanding of how water cycles and moves through the system that they’re developing.” - Dr. John Gibson
When most of us think of water in the outdoors, we tend to think it’s all pretty much the same. But the water you find in one part of an ecosystem can be quite different from the water in another.
That’s exactly what Dr. John Gibson sorts out for oil sands operators before the companies tap into water supplies or develop any lands. Gibson – a specialist in isotope hydrology – is the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC) senior hydrologist and a University of Victoria research professor.
An Isotope Technologist runs an
isotope ratio mass spectrometer.
“We’re looking at baseline conditions prior to development so that companies have a better understanding of how water cycles and moves through the system that they’re developing,” says Gibson. “They want to know what’s there, so they can protect that and return it to that state at the end as much as possible,” he says. There are also specific development issues that arise, such as how groundwater supplies or overlying lakes and wetlands are likely to be affected by pumping.
Gibson uses isotope tracers to get a very specific “fingerprint” of the water in any given area. “We can understand origin, age, and history of a water sample. Did the water sit in surface storage and evaporate? Did it originate from modern snowmelt or rainfall recharge, or ancient buried seawater? says Gibson. “We can separately label the origin of the water and the salts that are dissolved in it, which can be very informative.”
There is a whole suite of different tracers, including the isotopes contained in the water molecule itself. “There is a very small amount of heavy water that’s present naturally, and that water tells a story, says Gibson. “It changes as it moves through the water cycle and if you look at enrichment of those heavy isotopes or depletion, it can tell you what has happened to that water over time.”
Sampling groundwater at a SAGD
operation near Ft. McMurray.
What happened to the water, and where it’s been is all critical information for oil sands operators. “How the water moves through these wetlands is very important to reclaiming them,” says Gibson. “Wetland reclamation is very sensitive to the hydrology and the chemistry of the system. You can’t really create a wetland without having the water and the chemistry right.”
Gibson’s research is also supported by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), an oil sands environmental consortium, and by federal and provincial governments. He has participated in the regional water initiative of the Canadian Water Network: Oil Sands, a federally funded research centre of excellence. In 2010 he served as a peer reviewer of the industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), and most recently, was a member of the federal government’s scientific team charged with designing an integrated oil sands monitoring plan.
He says the oil sands present a challenge, but the operators are prepared to use AITF’s innovative and cost-effective tracer technology to get as much information as possible. “It’s very technology friendly,” says Gibson. “The companies really want to do the absolute best that they can, and they’re not afraid to invest strategically in using the best techniques.”