Feature Articles

Literature Review Gathers Decades of Data on Elbow River Watershed

Written by Ann Sullivan

When Bob McAlpine began compiling information about the Elbow River watershed, he was surprised by what he found – and also by what he didn’t find. In pulling together a variety of reports and studies, McAlpine found no record of sampling or any hydrological evaluation of Elbow Lake, the source of the Elbow River in Kananaskis Country. “It’s probably the most important part of the whole river,” said McAlpine, a professional biologist and water quality specialist.

Bob McAlpine (second from right) speaks at Cobble Flats along the Elbow River during the ERWP’s annual general meeting in June 2016.  Photo by Mike Murray

Bob McAlpine (second from right) speaks at Cobble Flats along the Elbow River during the ERWP’s annual general meeting in June 2016. Photo by Mike Murray

“I was shocked, actually, that the source of all our drinking water wasn’t being studied,” he said, although he added that it’s possible the information he believes missing is out there, just not currently available to the public.

Read more: Literature Review Gathers Decades of Data on Elbow River Watershed

Assessment Project Checks on Riparian Health in Alberta’s East Slopes Headwaters

How did riparian areas in some of Alberta’s critical headwaters––including the Elbow River––fare after the flood of 2013? That’s one of the questions Michael Wagner and his field crew hope to answer with the East Slopes Riparian Assessment Project. Wagner, a forest hydrologist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, is field lead and head of logistics and supervision for the two-year project. He’s currently compiling and sorting through data from both last year’s field crews and crews working in Alberta’s East Slopes this season.

Crew Sampling 

Above: Crew samples a stream as part of the East Slopes Riparian Assessment Project.

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U of C Professor Champions Elbow River Protection

by C. Lacombe

The many people that drink Elbow River water may be making important decisions by default and Professor Dr. Cathryn Ryan would prefer to see that change to informed decision making.

Ryan and her students have studied the Elbow River, its water and its watershed for years. Students tested well water at Bragg Creek kitchen taps, checked Elbow River invertebrates, tested river water quality and studied hydro geology upstream of the Glenmore Reservoir. View of Calgary from Stampede Grounds

According to Ryan, Al Sosiak, a recently retired limnolgist Alberta Environment, said for many years that the Elbow is the only river in the world that he's aware of whose major end use is drinking water. 

The Elbow River is small, less than one tenth the size of the Bow River, but supplies 40 – 45% of Calgary's drinking water. Sosiak first showed water quality degradation in the Elbow River close to Calgary in 1999. Sosiak and Dixon (from The City of Calgary) checked water quality again in 2005 and Ryan studied it with her students in 2016 to find that the degradation continues – mainly in the reaches closest to the Glenmore reservoir.

Ryan says she believes that water quality degradation is related to development on the river-connected alluvial aquifer, a thin ribbon of land next to the river and not even continuous on both sides. She points out that a good portion of the Elbow River headwaters are in Kananaskis Country. The eastern slopes experience some stress from forestry and recreation, but it is the land in and just west of Calgary where urban development has a significant effect.

Read more: U of C Professor Champions Elbow River Protection

Bragg Creek & Redwood Meadows Will Lead

by C. Lacombe

Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows residents can show the rest of the province how to manage a river community through a process that is called The Elbow Riverlands Project.
In view of the catastrophic consequences for many people in June 2013, the Alberta government organized a pilot project where they brought Dutch experts to Calgary and sat them at a table with Alberta experts.

Jerry Brunen - Western Sky Land Trust

Jerry Brunen, Executive Director, Western Sky Land Trust

“They brought together the who’s who of the water management world within the Bow Basin,” says Jerry Brunen, Executive Director, Western Sky Land Trust (Western Sky). The Dutch developed the Room for the River concept; this makes sense as Holland is below sea level and at the mouth of one of Europe’s biggest rivers. Also, Europe has a very long history of human development close to rivers and lakes. Many European cities now have rivers channelled through them with very little room for them to fluctuate.

With a critical eye and diverse perspective, the group brought together for the Bow Basin examined alternatives for flood mitigation from engineered solutions to natural landscape features that hold back water. They debated what might work for the Bow River watershed.

The idea behind Room for the River is to ensure the river has places to go when it experiences high volume flows. In The Netherlands, the projects had to work with and around established communities and farms. Alberta is fortunate in that much of its headwaters are currently undeveloped, but community engagement needs to take place, to help in recovering from the flood and to best adapt to the future. In Holland, they are building floodways, removing obstacles, deepening riverbeds and creating offstream storage areas. Here in Alberta it may be possible to let nature do a lot of the work.

For example, downstream from Calgary, Western Sky contacted about 70 landowners to talk about conserving land along the Bow River and its large tributaries to give the river room to take its natural course. Brunen says this led to four land conservation projects and five riparian health assessments (in which the health of the landscape immediately adjacent to the river is assessed). He adds that Western Sky plans to contact 400 landowners on the Bow upstream of Calgary, the Highwood and Sheep Rivers and hopes to get similar results.
The pilot project produced a report for the government outlining some of the ways it could move forward. A key recommendation of that report identified Bragg Creek and Redwood Meadows engagement as a priority to find solutions customized and tailored by residents.

Through generous support from the Calgary Foundation and the Rick Butler Leadership Fund, the process will start by going to the community. Information and local forums will be provided, allowing a dialogue to occur about ways to increase watershed resiliency for whatever flood, drought and climate change throws at it.

“So, really, it’s from the ground level up,” Brunen says, “taking ownership within your community to understand better how to move forward for the best long term solutions.”

Read more: Bragg Creek & Redwood Meadows Will Lead

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