The Elbow River may be the only river in the world whose major end use is drinking water. And although it supplies water to about half the population of Calgary and one in six Albertans, it’s not a big river, just one-tenth the size of the Bow. Cathy Ryan, a professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary, makes these points to illustrate how important it is to protect the Elbow and its aquifer. Since the aquifer is directly hydraulically connected to the river, Ryan said, any river activities can directly affect water quality. Ryan is concerned that the Elbow is not being adequately protected because it’s “a casualty to the fact that people want to live close to rivers.”
Much of the flow in the Elbow River moves through the aquifer to the river, either after percolating down through the aquifer itself or through rocks, cracks and soil before flowing into the aquifer and then the open-stream river. Surface water, which comes directly from rain and snowmelt, makes up a much smaller percentage of water in the Elbow.
By Ann Sullivan
Wetlands are a critical part of a healthy environment. They moderate the effects of floods and droughts, store and filter water, provide habitat for fish, wildlife and plants, and help to sustain biodiversity. However, despite the integral role they play in the environment, wetlands are still viewed by some as just another marshy piece of land that needs filling in to be of real use.
Photo by Flora Giesbrecht
Judy Stewart, a Cochrane resident and longtime wetlands and water advocate, would like to see a change in people’s attitudes toward these underappreciated areas. “[Wetlands] perform so many different functions that we need because of climate change,” Stewart says, “but no one has been able to put a dollar value on that.”
In 2013, the Government of Alberta introduced a new wetland policy to replace two interim policies from 1993. Stewart said she was encouraged by initial recommendations for the new policy, but she was not pleased with the final result. “What they put together is quite watered down,” she said of the current wetland policy. “I was quite disappointed,” she added. “We waited a long time for it.”
By Ann Sullivan
One of the most striking themes in Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West is the idea that all water issues are connected, and that water connects and affects all
forms of life. As editor Jim Ellis writes in the book’s introduction, “Water visibly reminds us of our connections, as well as our responsibility to those that share the same watershed.”
The book Water Rites came about after the 2017 Annual Community Seminar hosted by the Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH), of which Ellis is director. The CIH, formed in 1976, is Canada’s oldest humanities institute. Each year it hosts a seminar on an issue of importance to Calgary and the wider community, and in 2017 the seminar topic was “Water in the West: Rights of Water/Rights to Water.” Three guests, Michelle Daigle, David Laidlaw and Adrian Parr, spoke at the event, and some of their opening remarks are included in Water Rites along with contributions from, among others, artists, art critics, First Nations groups and non-profit associations such as the Elbow River Watershed Partnership.
The book is a beautiful collection of essays and artwork, curated in a way that invites readers to think more deeply about issues around water, for example, the overallocation and insufficient flow in Alberta’s rivers; the rights of everyone to clean water; but also the beauty of water in our everyday lives, such as at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers in downtown Calgary.
by Ann Sullivan
The Elbow is a small but mighty river. From its source in Rae Glacier in Kananaskis Country, it flows through wilderness, rural and urban landscapes before joining the Bow River in Calgary. Just 120 kilometres long, the Elbow River provides water for hundreds of thousands of Albertans as well as all the fish, flora and fauna that depend on it for life. The Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP), a Calgary-based nonprofit organization, was formed in 2004 to promote and support good watershed management, addressing challenges to the watershed as they arise.
As populations surrounding the Elbow River grow, so do the development pressures placed on the Elbow River and its watershed. Add to this the effects of climate change, and it’s no surprise that this vital watershed is faced with challenges of all kinds. Some, like timber harvesting and resource extraction, have been a factor for decades; others, like the Southwest Calgary Ring Road project, have only come into play in recent years.
According to a report published by the City of Calgary in 2014, water quality in the Elbow, as measured at eight locations along the river, received an overall good rating in 2012. The ERWP wants to ensure that those ratings stay . An important part of this effort will be the development of a State of the Watershed (SOW) report, the initial planning of which has already begun. Mike Murray, ERWP chair, says the group hopes to complete the SOW report in about two years, “depending on how some of the pieces come together.” This will allow enough time to collect and analyze the necessary data and produce the report, he said.
by Ann Sullivan
In late April 2018, a load of silt from Forestry Road 1852A slid into a reach of Silvester Creek, a tributary of the Elbow River. The incident might have gone unreported if hikers in the area hadn’t noticed unusually cloudy water and followed the sedimentation to its source. Their action led to a report to the Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and a formal complaint with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Federal and provincial governments are still investigating the incident, but the damaged creek crossing, where the silt originated, has been repaired. When asked about the siltation incident, Ed Kulcsar, Vice President, Woodlands, at Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS), said in an email that the report was “inaccurate.” He added that “seasonal maintenance is performed to ensure all erosion control measures are functioning when conditions permit.” Cochrane-based SLS holds the Forest Management Agreement (FMA) for all Kananaskis Country forested areas—outside of protected areas and parks—in the Elbow River watershed. Its FMA was renewed in 2015.
The Government of Alberta confirmed that “the particular case in question is under an active investigation by both provincial forestry and federal authorities” and could not comment further.
The health of all creeks in the Elbow River watershed is crucial to our freshwater supply, but Silvester Creek is of special importance: It has been designated as critical habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout, a threatened species that some argue should be classified as “endangered.” (Click to read our article on this). Westslope Cutthroat Trout need clean, cool water and a pebbly bottom in which to lay their eggs. Extra sediment turns the water cloudy and the creek bottom into something more like concrete than loose pebbles. Conservationists see the muddying of Silvester Creek—a relatively small but vital piece of the Elbow River watershed—as evidence that land use of any kind can have an impact on the environment. The province acknowledges this and says its forestry division is working with other government programs to manage land use and fisheries issues in the Elbow watershed in general and the Silvester Creek area in particular.