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.

The assessment project started with a grant from Alberta Environment and Parks’ Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program (WRRP) to the Foothills Research Institute (fRI). With in-kind support from the provincial government, the Hinton-based fRi is studying functional riparian conditions in the green zone of the Bow and Oldman river basins. Axel Anderson is head of project management for the team.

Goals of the project, according to Wagner, are: to assess the riparian condition of forested watersheds; to identify and prioritize areas that need rehabilitation post-2013 flood; to collect data over a large spatial scale; to increase public awareness of riparian conditions in forested watershed; and to write papers and submit reports, that is, to make the data public.

Functional riparian conditions at the East Slopes headwaters are largely unknown, says Wagner. “We assume they’re healthy, but we really don’t know.”

To start developing what Wagner calls a “riparian health score,” two crews of two headed into the field with their hip waders, GPS devices and other equipment in the summer of 2015. Another four field workers continue to collect data this summer and fall. When their work is complete, crews will have collected data from 350 randomly selected sites in the East Slopes headwaters, 200 of them in the Bow Watershed (including many sites in the Elbow and Ghost watersheds and along McLean Creek) and 150 in the Oldman Watershed.

Unhealthy Riparian Area 

Above: a non-functional riparian area and stream

The study sites, which cover a wide spatial area, were chosen with two basic criteria in mind: each had to be within the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve; and each had to be within 2.5 kilometres of a road or trail. Assessments may take as little as two hours or much longer, depending on the condition of the site and the time it takes to reach it. (Imagine hiking through Alberta’s mountain forests in hip waders while carrying testing equipment and you’ll know why reaching a site can take some time.)

Using the Forest and Range Evaluation Program (FREP) Riparian Protocol, crews assess functional riparian health using 120 physical measurements and 60 indicators to answer 15 yes/no questions. The questions ask, among other things, whether the channel bed is undisturbed and if its banks are intact. Questions also deal with riparian vegetation, the amount of fine sediments in the water, number of disturbances and the diversity of aquatic invertebrates.

Part of Wagner’s job is to crunch the data collected on field cards. “The trick is going to be teasing apart the results,” he says. From his office in Calgary, Wagner also handles project logistics, trains crews and occasionally heads into the field to complete site audits or assess sites that crews haven’t been able to reach.

So far, based on data collected last year, researchers have identified several major issues: disturbed channel banks, a large amount of fine sediments in stream channels, and bare ground in the riparian area.

“Overwhelmingly, disproportionately, the flood has impacted riparian areas on the Bow,” Wagner says, noting that results are “very preliminary.” He adds that much of the bare erodible ground was likely caused by flooding, but cattle and browsing ungulates have caused damage as well.

Also based on last year’s data, early reports suggest that the biggest impacts on rivers and streams in the East Slopes green zone are: flooding, livestock/trampling, browsing by livestock, and roads. “Even in areas that are heavily impacted, there are streams that are super healthy,” Wagner says, “and vice versa.”

Healthy Riparian Area

Above: a fully functional riparian area and stream.

Overall, he says, it’s a good news story. “Our riparian areas are in fairly good shape.”

Wagner hopes to complete his work, including writing a draft publication, by March 2017. The eventual outcome of the project is to ensure healthy functioning riparian areas in Alberta through restoration and good management. “If we have riparian areas that are healthy,” says Wagner, “they can buffer against high flows. And in times of drought, they’ll be resilient as well.”

For further information:
Axel Anderson, project manager:
Michael Wagner, field lead, logistics and supervision:

Download this article:  pdf East Slopes Riparian Assessment Project (1.92 MB)

Download more information about FREP:  pdf FREP Extension Note (758 KB)

Photos supplied by Michael Wagner, field lead, logistics and supervision, East Slopes Riparian Assessment Project

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