The Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) introduced a new system for examining surface water supply and natural gas industry water use on October 18.
The NorthEast Water Tool (NEWT) is a publicly available GIS tool that enables OGC and Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) staff, natural gas producers and other stakeholders to access information about the hydrology and water allocations for industry use for any water body in the northeast corner of the province.
"To provide quantitative stream flow information to tabulate how much water's already been tied up in licenses or short term water use approvals and to provide a determination of what the environmental flow needs are for essentially any river and lake across northeast B.C.," said OGC hydrologist Allan Chapman, explaining the purpose of NEWT.
One application is to help OGC and FLNRO make decisions about short-term water use approvals, which are the responsibility of OGC, and long-term water licenses, which are the responsibility of FLNRO.
"It's also intended to provide information to oil and gas operators who are the ones who are often looking for water," Chapman added.
Similarly, Chapman suggested it could also be a useful tool for First Nations, who must be consulted when companies apply to withdraw water from lakes or rivers in their territory. NEWT can demonstrate if the volume of water being requested is a small or large percentage of the stream flow of that watercourse.
NEWT is accessible through the OGC website.
"It's available to anybody," said Chapman.
"We think that the people that will probably be using it the most will be the various land agents who do applications for the companies," he continued, adding that oil and gas companies also have staff who would use NEWT.
"All of our natural resource officers in the Commission will be using it," said Chapman. "And the operation managers, because it provides guidance to them on the determination of the approval. The [FLNRO] staff who deal with water licenses will be using it.
"Anybody who's interested in the question of water in northeast B.C."
Considering the large number and wide variety of potential NEWT users, the OGC had decided that training sessions are necessary. Those sessions will be taking place in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Fort Nelson from November 14-16.
"NEWT's a brand new tool," said Chapman. "I'm not aware of anything similar to it anywhere in Canada or the United States even. So, it is unique.
"What we're targeting for the training would be land agents, consultants that deal with water issues with industry, the various water staff who work with the companies, government, First Nations," he added.
"Most of what we'll be doing is explaining how to use it and how to interpret the results," he concluded.
NEWT can be used to access information about very small creeks and streams as well as large watercourses such as the Peace and Beatton Rivers.
"It's designed so that someone will just zoom in and pick a river or a lake and then run the tool for a specific, defined point," said Chapman.
NEWT will subsequently provide monthly and annual data on average runoff, average discharge, volume of water reserved for environmental flow, potential maximum allocation, existing allocation and the remaining allocation potential.
"There's actually only a few locations in northeast B.C. where there's actual measurements of stream flow," said Chapman. "We had to model the runoff."
That hydrological modeling was completed by Chapman and the OGC about a year ago, alongside staff from other government ministries, a pair of Environment Canada scientists and experts from University of Victoria, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.
NEWT takes advantage of the FLNRO database of water licensing information, which is updated on a daily basis.
It also uses the OGC's own water use approval data.
"Those are always current," said Chapman.
"We use an environmental flow model, which is from Alberta," he continued. "And the reason we use the Alberta Environment approach for the estimation of environmental flows is that we currently don't have a defined procedure in B.C."
That is expected to be part of the modernized Water Act.
"I think it just indicates the commitment of the Commission, and the government partners that we worked with on the development of NEWT, to communicating, as best we can, in the public domain, the best information that we've got on water," Chapman said when asked how the tool might help the OGC maintain good relations with the various stakeholders interested in industry water use.
"Going beyond just communicating what's available," he continued, "we were trying to create a new product to take complex information and put into a form that anybody can access. So, they can determine what the stream flow is and how much water has already been licensed. And how much is there and how much will be left should every license holder pump at the maximum rate."
Chapman said that NEWT is an important element of being open and transparent about water use, but he also cautioned that the data the tool provides is based on a long-term average, not the specific conditions that exist on the day a site user is accessing that information.
"So, when you run NEWT and you generate a stream flow for the Beatton River, you'll see that the stream flow from July until today on the Beatton River is way lower than what NEWT shows," said Chapman, offering a hypothetical example. "That's because right now we're in a drought. So, NEWT doesn't track the current real time stream flow. It depicts an average.
"But we can use NEWT to say, well, knowing what the stream flow is now relative to what it would be in a normal year, we can see that there's not much water, we have to suspend water use, we have to work with industry and move them over to alternate sources of water."
Chapman gave the Fort St. John Petroleum Association a sneak peak at NEWT during a visit to discuss the almost record dry spell experienced in the Peace Region this summer, the conditions that prompted the OGC to suspend water withdrawals by natural gas producers from many of the watercourses in northeast B.C.
The region receives between 450 and 500 millimetres of precipitation per year, Chapman explained, about two-thirds of that coming as rain and the remaining third coming as snow.
"That's not really a lot of water," said Chapman.
"Not all of the 480 millimetres or so turns into stream flow," he continued, noting that stream flow is actually about one-fifth of precipitation.
"Water needs for fracturing varies a lot," Chapman added.
Water use in the Montney tight gas play can range from 8,000 to 30,000 cubic metres of water per well, while water use in the Horn River Basin can reach 100,000 cubic metres of water per well.
As much as 65 per cent of that water can come from surface water sources, but the industry is moving toward using larger amounts of saline water from aquifers deep below the surface and recycled flowback water.
Recycled water use is being driven by a desire to reduce freshwater use as well as the high expense of disposing of that water when it isn't recycled.
Chapman stated that the water used for hydraulic fracturing is just a fraction of a percentage of the available water supply, which should remain the case according to projected water requirements for the Montney.
Presently, activity in the Montney is relatively low because of the low natural gas price, bolstered slightly by the higher price for natural gas liquids (NGL) that are found in that play.
The OGC based their projections a period when gas is $6.00 per unit, however.
The forecast suggests that 2.5 times as many wells would be drilled per year compared to the current numbers. That translates to 14 million cubic metres of water per year for fracturing. A total of 9.5 million cubic metres of that amount is expected to come from surface water sources. The average annual runoff into the Peace River is projected to be 16.6 billion cubic metres.
"There's lots of water in the Peace River," said Chapman.
"It's recognizing that it has to be well-managed," he added.
This past summer has emphasized that fact.
The Kiskatinaw River experienced record lows in the middle of August, actually running dry between Labour Day and the beginning of October.
The Pine River was at its lowest levels in about 50 years after receiving no rain since the middle of June.
During his presentation to the Petroleum Association, Chapman expressed his concerns about the potential impact on fish populations in the northeast if the area didn't receive substantial rain prior to the rivers freezing.
"Unless we get some pretty solid rain in the next three weeks," he said, "the rivers are going to freeze where they are."