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.

The Elbow River Watershed Partnership hired McAlpine to gather data from three decades of work on the Elbow River watershed. “My job was to compile all the reports that were gathering dust on the shelves,” he said, and there were many reports; the challenge was to organize the multitude of data within them. “People were doing studies here and there willy-nilly without any cohesion,” he said.

McAlpine reviewed literature from a variety of sources, such as Cows and Fish (Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society), the University of Calgary, Alberta Environment and the City of Calgary as well as volunteer groups. The ERWP, for example, has been testing water quality at sites along Bragg Creek since 2005.

McAlpine’s Literature Review of Water Quality in the Upper Elbow River Watershed, completed in September 2106, provides an overview of changes to the watershed through the years. It also presents data that can be used in current and future studies of the river.

Reports would suggest that recreational and agricultural uses along the Elbow River have affected water quality in the main river and its tributaries. Overall, water quality is highest closer to the headwaters of the Elbow River. Downstream tributaries have good overall water quality (as measured by the Water Quality Index) but, according to the literature review, have “persistently increased levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and fecal bacteria nearer to Glenmore Reservoir.”

There are 19 notable tributaries that flow into the Elbow and several more between Elbow Lake and the Little Elbow River that have not been studied. “The little Elbow is a complete blank spot,” McAlpine said, although he noted in his report that there have been few changes in land use in that area of the Upper Elbow.

Flooding in 2013 changed the landscape of the Elbow River and greatly affected riparian areas and habitat but not the basic geology of the river. For example, the steep slope of the river allows water to flow “aggressively” and tear up vegetation. “It’s a characteristic of the river and that’s not going to change,” he said.

Cobble Flats, Elbow River Photo by Bob McAlpine
Cobble Flats, Elbow River Photo by Bob McAlpine

McAlpine suggested that creating a database of all reports and studies on the Elbow River watershed would be a useful next step. He also noted that such a database should be reviewed annually and managed as a living document. In his literature review, he also identified several areas that would benefit from further study, for example:

  • Seasonal water sampling and flows from Elbow Lake;
  • Turbidity monitors at heavily used sites at McLean Creek and Silvester Creek;
  • An assessment of biomass at several locations to study the effects of nutrients on the long-term health of the river;
  • A study of the source of increasing levels of nutrients, bacteria, carbon and chloride in the Upper Elbow;
  • Bacterial source tracking at selected locations downstream from Bragg Creek and in tributaries with higher bacterial numbers.

These suggested studies can’t all be done at once, McAlpine said, but at least with the completion of a literature review, the ERWP can start to identify critical findings as well as gaps in knowledge and go from there.

As for McAlpine, he was so inspired by reading reports on the Elbow River watershed that he decided to hike in to Elbow Lake for the first time to take a look. He was awed by the beauty of the area and, given the opportunity, would be first in line to study Elbow Lake. “I’d like to do work on it,” he said.

Download:  pdf Literature Review Water Quality in the Upper Elbow Watershed 2016 (983 KB)

Download:  pdf ERWP Newsletter - December 2016 (367 KB)