Feature Articles

Protecting Groundwater is Key to Elbow River Health

Rae Glacier stream flowing over rocks.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.

In southern Alberta, surface water has been fully allocated (through water licences), which means we increasingly rely on our supply of groundwater, something we can’t see and haven’t been able to accurately measure. That’s why research by people like Éowyn Campbell, a doctoral student working with Ryan at the University of Calgary, is so important. Campbell, whose research on the age of water in the Elbow was featured in a previous ERWP article, says that virtually all water in the Elbow River is groundwater. “This is profound for our understanding of the river,” she said. “Anything we do upstream is going to impact the amount and quality of the water we’re seeing [downstream].”

As the population in southern Alberta increases and climate change continues, it becomes even more important that we understand groundwater in the Elbow River – the quantity and quality of it as well as our impact on it and how we can protect it.

AlluvialAquifer Text boxDevelopment on the aquifer affects water use and storage. Before scientists really understood the connection between rivers and aquifers, communities were built very close to the river with little concern for groundwater. A number of populated areas – including Bragg Creek, Redwood Meadows, Elbow Valley and parts of Springbank and Calgary – sit squarely in the Elbow River aquifer. And even though we now have a better understanding of the need to protect our aquifers, riverside development continues.

A proposed new development along Highway 8 west of Elbow Valley could add 7,000 housing units and close to 19,000 residents in a 930-hectare area south of the Elbow River. Can the Elbow sustain more people? Campbell believes the river can support more people than it currently does, but only with careful management. “In my opinion,” she said in an email, “maintaining the quality of the water in the river (and aquifer) requires treating it as a park, maintaining a 2-km setback from the river for any development, with more intensive developments set outside the alluvial aquifer entirely.”

Ryan says that the Elbow River has shown a steady water quality decline over decades (first reported in 1999 by Al Sosiak and reinforced in 2005 by Jamie Dixon and Al Sosiak). She and Campbell agree that people’s desire for waterfront living exacerbates the problem. “Unfortunately, human beings like to live right beside the water,” Campbell said. “We create our own problems.”

Ryan agrees. “Somehow, the land use on the Elbow River aquifer should be protected to activities that don’t contribute to groundwater quality degradation, discharge effluent to the river, and aren’t susceptible to flooding.”

Since 2007, the Rocky View Well Watch program (RVWW) has been monitoring water levels in more than 30 wells across Rocky View County. Volunteer citizen scientists measure the water level in their wells and enter data through a web-based portal. According to Masaski Hayashi, director of the well monitoring program, “The data showed us that there is a consistent pattern of groundwater level changes throughout the county in response to wet years and dry years.”

In its most recent newsletter (Groundwater Connections, February 2019), researchers with RVWW noted a “slow but steady decline of water levels” throughout 2018, with more than half of wells in the program reporting the lowest water levels recorded since 2008. However, the article stated, “This is part of the natural cycle and does not indicate an alarming condition.”

Elbow River Well UseCampbell hopes that her research on the Elbow River will eventually allow her to calculate more accurate storage volumes in the river’s alluvial aquifer. For now, she agrees that river levels in the Elbow and its aquifer have remained consistent, providing an adequate supply of water even in dry years. She did note that climate change will likely bring other effects, such as more extreme weather in shorter cycles. Ryan agreed. When asked if the future of southern Alberta could include droughts and water shortages, Ryan replied, “Yes. And floods too!”

On an individual level, Campbell suggests there’s not much we can do to change water quantity in the Elbow River aquifer, but we can certainly affect water quality by making conscious choices to protect and conserve the groundwater we have.

On a larger scale, she suggests that withdrawing and storing water during peak flows in the spring is a sensible way to ensure an adequate water supply. The City of Calgary uses the Glenmore Reservoir to store water from the Elbow. The city’s world-class water treatment system is the result of “conscious and careful decision making and allocation of a LOT of money,” Campbell said. In rural municipalities, where the tax base is smaller, however, there might be more temptation to put in water treatment programs that meet only the minimum standards, a solution that’s cheaper in the short term but detrimental in the long term. Says Campbell, “We just need to make sure we’re developing in a way that will maintain water quality and quantity for future generations instead of [doing] whatever is fastest and easiest.”

 

Click the link below for a PDF of the article.

pdf Groundwater is Key to Elbow Health - June 2019 article (801 KB)

 

Éowyn Campbell is a doctoral student in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary and a contributing member of the ERWP’s State of the Watershed Report team.

Cathy Ryan is a professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary with a long history of groundwater research.

The Need for Wetlands Protection

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.

Shrubby wetland area, photo by Flora Giesbrecht

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.”

Read more: The Need for Wetlands Protection

Water Rites Invites Us to Consider Different Perspectives on Water

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

WaterRitesCoverImage

 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.

Read more: Water Rites Invites Us to Consider Different Perspectives on Water

State of the Watershed Report Will Document Challenges Facing the Elbow River

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. 

Read more: State of the Watershed Report Will Document Challenges Facing the Elbow River

Our Land Use Choices Affect Watershed Health

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.

Read more: Our Land Use Choices Affect Watershed Health

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