Resource at Risk

Art by Christi Belcourt


Pollution and climate change threaten Saskatchewan's limited supply of fresh water

By Suliman Adam, Kerry Benjoe, Brittany Boschman and Shayla Sayer-Brabant

Saskatchewan is home to just 6.5 per cent of the nation’s freshwater, and these relatively scarce water resources are increasingly imperiled by industrial pollution, water diversion projects, agricultural runoff and the impacts of climate change, our investigation has found.

In a survey of 122 water operators across the country, 35 water operators expressed concerns about known or suspected contamination from nearby industries. As well, 32 felt climate change was impacting water quality, mainly through increased flooding that introduces contaminants to water sources.

Alfred Iron, director of public works at Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, understands the impact of a community’s water source being compromised. Canoe Lake Cree Nation relies on water drawn from Canoe Lake, which suffers from algae blooms in the summer. A few years ago the community got a “big scare,” he recalls.

“Our drinking water got contaminated, so we had to go on and boil water for about three weeks. We had to drain the whole system,” he says.

The water is good now, but it is a struggle to keep the plant updated and he worries about industrial pollutants drifting in their territory.

“We see a difference in the puddles after a rainstorm. When the puddles dry out there’s a film of yellow around. People are telling me that’s sulphur probably from the tar sands after they burn off the stuff,” Iron says.

"When the puddles dry out, there's a yellow film around. People are telling me that's sulphur probably from the tar sands after they burn off the stuff."
Alfred Iron
Director of Public Works, Canoe Lake Cree First Nation

A 2018 study conducted for Environment and Climate Change Canada modeled oil sands sulfur drift across Northern Saskatchewan, including excedances in the Canoe Lake area.

Further, a review of a federal inventory of industrial pollution reveals there have been 66 contaminated sites at Canoe Lake Cree Nation, including five that impacted groundwater with toxic petroleum-based substances such as hydrocarbons, benzene and toluene.

In Saskatchewan, oil spills have directly impacted bodies of water 803 times since 1991. And now there are new concerns that fracking byproducts may be seeping into groundwater as well, according to a study by University of Saskatchewan researchers.

First Nations also report impacts on water quality related to control of water flow. For example, Cumberland House struggled for years with mercury contamination as a result of a nearby dam project.

Agricultural runoff is a worry to some treatment plant operators in farming areas.

Monitoring pollution and cleaning up spills falls across provincial and federal jurisdictions, with increasing reliance on industry to police their own activities in Saskatchewan.

Oil and gas industry spills have directly impacted Saskatchewan bodies of water 803 times since 1991.
Sask Energy and Resources
Upstream incident report data

Graphic by Shayla Sayer-Brabant

Tracking the damage

This map shows the impact of 803 spills into bodies of water from the oil industry in Saskatchewan. The data comes from the provincial IRIS upstream reports from the Ministry of Energy and Resources. This map also indicates all First Nations land throughout the province.

Map by Celine Grimard, Kaitlyn Schropp and Michael Wrobel.