Feature Articles

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

Encouraging Future River Champions

Written by: C. Lacombe

Students become stewards while out in the wild and water aided by the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) Field Study Program operated in affiliation with Alberta Environment & Parks, Kananaskis Region.

Environmental Education Coordinator at Parks, Vicki Perkins, implements the program that boasts taking over 11,000 students on a journey of discovery along the Elbow River in the last decade. Over 1,400 volunteers came along on over 438 program days.

“I can’t think of any other program we offer that is so obvious to kids about how their actions can collectively protect a resource that is essential for all life,” says Perkins.

Field School Kick Box 2015 Elbow River

Here's why students get engrossed by kick box samples.

ERWP Chair, Diane Coleman adds, “The ERWP considers this our flagship program. We are very proud of the way it contributes to environmental education in our watershed.”

On a typical field day, 35–70 students from Calgary and outlying areas come into the Elbow Valley to study the watershed.

“We work with the idea that the river is an expression of the landscape,” explains Perkins

Read more: Encouraging Future River Champions

Landscape Health Protects Us All

Written by C. Lacombe

Protecting the Elbow River and the people who live by it, drink it and enjoy playing in and around it requires a slightly different focus, according to a life-long lover of the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rockies.

“I find one of our great ironies is that when we talk about water management, we focus on our rivers and lakes. When in fact, by the time water is in rivers and lakes, most of the important water management decisions have been made because they are land use decisions,” says Kevin Van Tighem, author and former Park Superintendent, Banff National Park.

Kevin Van Tighem addresses ERWP AGM tour participants June 19. Photo: Mike Murray

Kevin Van Tighem addresses ERWP AGM tour participants June 19. Photo: Mike Murray

He asserts that all the land west of Calgary is “a giant green, living reservoir.” Most of the water that ends up in our streams, rivers and lakes comes from the mountains and foothills of the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies. He compares the region to a giant sponge. He says over 80 percent of the water that comes down the Elbow River originates as snow. When we change the landscape’s condition, we change the way the land receives, retains and releases snow over the seasons.

For example, when logging clears large patches of land, it accumulates more snow because snow doesn’t get caught up in trees to blow away or evaporate. On the upside, this stores more water during the winter, but that water comes all at once during the short spring melt period and, potentially, as a flood.

Conversely, if forestry took small patches of forest, snow would accumulate in the exposed areas, but still have some shade to slow its melt. The water would infiltrate the ground in the spring, find its way to aquifers and to the rivers later in the summer when we need it.

A change in forestry practices can have a large effect on the amount and timing of water and water movement.

So Van Tighem asks, “Do we want to pay for services and help forestry be viable and improve our water supply? Or do we want the status quo; which means we’ll be bailing out our basements more frequently than we would otherwise?”

Read more: Landscape Health Protects Us All

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