Water is essential to Syncrude’s operation and plays a key role in our production processes. We are committed to managing the resource responsibly and, toward this, aim to minimize the withdrawal of fresh water from the watershed, maximize reuse of process-affected water, and safely manage its storage. This includes taking steps to protect local water bodies, creeks and rivers, and to develop scientifically-sound treatment methods which will allow us to release water stored on our site safely back to the environment.

Our water sources

The majority of our operation relies on recycled water sourced from our tailings ponds. Of the total water used in 2018, 87 per cent was recycled from these facilities.

The Athabasca River provided approximately 13 per cent of our water needs in 2018. This water is used to cool upgrading processes, generate steam, and for potable consumption. Our water license permit allows withdrawal of 61.7 million m3 of fresh water from the river annually. We currently use about 60 per cent of this allocation and, in periods of low flow, further limit withdrawals. In 2018, we used about 0.18 per cent of the river’s total annual average flow, which is equivalent to about 16 hours for the year.

Water use performance

In 2018, we withdrew 37.6 million m3 from the Athabasca River for production operations. As well, approximately one million m3 of basal groundwater was used in Aurora plant operations.

For non-production purposes, an additional 2.8 million m3 of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project. To offset this diversion, we fund the Alberta Conservation Association and their work to protect and enhance the riparian zone and streambed of the Owl River, near Lac La Biche. The offset constitutes compensation, as per our Fisheries Act approval, for Harmful Alteration, Disruption or Destruction of fisheries habitat (known as HADD).

As per provincial regulation, precipitation and runoff that comes in contact with our mining area is collected and routed into our closed circuit recycle water system. In 2018, this included a Mildred Lake site fence line diversion of an estimated 27.3 million m3 in precipitation (snowmelt and rainfall) and 0.7 million m3 in surface water. Fence line diversion at our Aurora North site was an estimated 2.2 million m3 in precipitation, 3.2 million m3 in surficial water and 5.0 million m3 in basal groundwater. Over the last few years, extensive efforts have been undertaken to return natural surface water and basal groundwater from our leases to the watershed. In 2018, 4.8 million m3 of water was returned to the environment upon meeting provincially-regulated water quality parameters.

Toward improved water efficiency

In 2018, water use intensity was in line with the five year average of 2.5 barrels of fresh water per barrel of production. This was however higher than plan due to the power loss event at our operation in June, which reduced overall crude oil production and delayed the commissioning of some of our water efficiency projects. A number of actions are underway to improve our water efficiency in the years ahead.

Actions already underway reduced 2018 river intake by 1.29 million m3. This included using water from reverse osmosis units in our water treatment plant for Syncrude Emissions Reduction Project units, and recovering water from the condensate stripper in our hydrogen plant.

Research progresses on treatment and release

Syncrude does not currently release process-affected water to the environment. The only releases to the Athabasca River are treated sanitary sewage similar to that from municipalities, as well as surface and aquifer water that has not been used in the bitumen production process. All releases are routinely tested to ensure they meet government specified quality regulations.

We recognize that storing process-affected water is not a sustainable long-term practice. To expedite landscape restoration activities and improve overall environmental stewardship, the hydrology of the reclaimed landscape must be integrated within the surrounding environment. To address these goals, Syncrude collaborates through COSIA and with academic institutions to research and develop appropriate water treatment technologies. At our site, two large-scale projects are currently underway – the Base Mine Lake water-capped tailings technology demonstration and the Water Return Demonstration project.

Water release demonstration project

Syncrude’s Research and Development department has been conducting successful research on tailings water treatment using petroleum coke, a byproduct of our upgrading process. The treatment is similar to using a home water filter. The coke, which is almost pure carbon, acts as a filter to remove contaminants such as naphthenic acids. Field programs completed to date shows the treated water will support aquatic life and protect downstream uses.

A large pilot-scale plant has been constructed at the Mildred Lake Settling Basin to further assess the technology, and provide engineering design information necessary for potential commercial-scale implementation. With input from government, industry and Indigenous communities, a comprehensive monitoring and testing plan is being developed to document the water quality throughout the treatment process. Academic institutions are also being engaged to advance knowledge and ensure results are transparent and publicly available in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Regional water monitoring

Syncrude funds regional monitoring which is managed at arm’s length by federal and provincial agencies through the Oil Sands Monitoring Program under the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division within Alberta Environment and Parks. Areas of oversight include water, biodiversity and ecosystem health. An Indigenous Knowledge Advisory Panel also provides advice on monitoring activities. Details on current projects can be found on the Government of Alberta website.

Performance data


Fresh water withdrawal1
(million m
Fresh water use intensity
(barrel water per barrel crude oil produced)
Fresh water use intensity
(barrel water per barrel bitumen oil produced)
Process water recycled
(million m
Process water recycled
(% total water used)
Water returned (million m3)

1 Athabasca River water diversion for direct operations use only. In 2018, under regulatory approval, an additional 2.8 million m3 of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project.
2 Water is returned to the Athabasca River and includes surface water and groundwater from dewatering activities as well as treated sanitary.

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