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Investigation of water repellency and critical water content in undisturbed and reclaimed soils from the Athabasca Oil Sands Region of Alberta, Canada



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Ecosystems are disturbed to extract synthetic crude oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR) in northern Alberta, Canada. Successful reclamation of mined oil sands sites depends on maximizing water storage and minimizing the potential for erosion. Soil water repellency in the AOSR affects undisturbed sites and consequently reclamation materials. Extreme water repellency may lead to low infiltration rates and hinder reclamation. There is a lack of information about the naturally occurring and pre-existing levels of soil water repellency in the AOSR. Thus, questions arise about the degree of naturally occurring water repellency and the potential for severe water repellency in reclamation soils. Studies were conducted on nine sites in the AOSR in the summers of 2008 and 2009. A range of undisturbed and reclaimed sites, as well as mineral and organic reclamation materials were examined. Five undisturbed Jack Pine stands (classified as A ecosites), four reclaimed sites and reclamation materials including mineral soil, peat and leaf and lichen covering the forest floor (LFH) were studied. For a comparison of methods, one grasslands site in central Saskatchewan was included. Mini and standard tension infiltrometers were compared as a means of measuring soil water repellency index (RI). There was strong variability in RI values between the infiltrometer methods. The mean RI values from the mini infiltrometers were higher than from the standard infiltrometer (9.61 and 3.46, respectively). The variability within sites dominated the variability in RI for the two methods. Despite these obvious trends, RI values between infiltrometer sizes were statistically different for only two individual sites. Increasing the number of sampling points in the second field season did not reduce the variability. The simpler, less expensive mini infiltrometer is as effective as the standard infiltrometer in measuring soil water repellency. This will enable more efficient and extensive monitoring of soil water repellency in reclaimed and undisturbed sites in the AOSR. Soil water repellency of reclaimed and undisturbed sites was investigated in situ using RI, the water droplet penetration time (WDPT) test, and the molarity of ethanol droplet (MED) test. These measures showed similar trends. Variability in soil water repellency was high at both reclaimed and undisturbed sites. The average RI value for the surface of reclaimed sites was higher than that of the subsurface at reclaimed sites; however, there were no statistical differences between RI values of surface reclaimed and undisturbed sites (P =0.213) due to high spatial variability. The critical water content (CWC) of reclamation materials was determined by measuring the contact angle (CA) and WDPT. Generally, CA and WDPT were inversely related to water content, though variability was high and the relationship between water content was weak. The clearest relationship between water repellency and water content was present for the mineral soil samples. Reclaimed mineral soil was generally wettable above gravimetric water contents of 5-10 %, while the coarse textured tarball affected materials were only subcritically water repellent. There was no relationship between water repellency and water content for peat and LFH. The degree of water repellency was statistically higher for peat materials with increasing decomposition levels. The average WDPT was 44, 128 and 217 s for fibric, mesic, and humic peat, respectively. With careful management and monitoring, water repellency may not be a major limitation to reclamation success. The mini tension infiltrometer is an effective method for monitoring soil water repellency in the AOSR.



hydrophobicity, water repellency, soil, Oil Sands



Master of Science (M.Sc.)


Soil Science


Soil Science


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