Navigation study of the lower Athabasca River

This study looked at how changing water levels could impact boats navigating the lower Athabasca River in the fall navigational season (August to October).

About the study

The Athabasca River Navigational Study report presents the results of the Phase 3 and 4 investigations of the Lower Athabasca River. Dillon Consulting Limited completed this study on behalf of Transport Canada. These phases represent:

  • An ongoing review of navigational issues along the lower stem of the Athabasca River
  • Further investigation following the earlier Phase 1 and 2 studies completed by Golder Associates in 2015 and 2018

The study examined 11-high ranking sites with navigation concerns between Fort McMurray and extending 200 km further downstream to near Embarras Portage in September 2018.

This study focuses on:

  • Detailed surveys and river channel evaluations on areas of concern
  • Assessing the Lower Athabasca River discharges, water levels, and channel depths that relate to keeping a navigable channel open during the fall (August to October)


The study helps understand:

  • What navigational challenges exist on the lower Athabasca River
  • How lower water levels could impact the river and navigation


The results of the study suggest:

  • The natural variation in water levels impact navigability of the river during the fall (August to October). Current water withdrawals alone have very little impact on navigation on the lower Athabasca River
  • Over the next 40 years, navigation could be more difficult as a result of gradual climate change effects
  • Combined with climate change effects, potential future water withdrawals may impact navigation however, the impacts from water withdrawals would be expected to be small.

Overall, the study finds lower water levels for both average and drought conditions are expected in the future as a result of climate change effects. Particularly during drought (forecast to occur every 20 to 50 years), navigation will become very challenging as many of the study sites could see water depths of less than 0.3 m. If water withdrawals increase to maximum permitted rates and as climate change impacts the flows and levels along the river, it will become harder for boats to navigate. Current withdrawal rates are well below maximum permitted rates.

This study’s assessment of the river conditions provides a snapshot in time and the location of navigational areas of concern included in the Study are likely to change in future.

Read the executive summary of the report.

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