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. 

Completing the SOW report will require substantial funding, both financial and in-kind, from all stakeholders, including the City of Calgary, Rocky View County, Tsuut’ina Nation and the University of Calgary, as well as nonprofit and charitable groups such as the Bow River Basin Council. The cost of such a comprehensive report will be financially challenging for the ERWP, Murray said. He noted that the ERWP is “actively looking for funding” to cover costs, which have been broken out into phases. “The overall budget is flexible,” he said, “and we will do what we can with what we have.”

The Elbow River watershed, covering an area of 1,227 km2, is shared by several jurisdictions: the City of Calgary; the province, through provincial parks, public land use zones and recreation areas; Rocky View County (22 percent jurisdiction); and the Tsuut’ina Nation (13 percent).

Murray said the ERWP looks forward to working with the Tsuut’ina on developing the SOW report. “It is definitely something we want to pursue,” he said.

The City of Calgary recently completed its own major study involving the Bow and Elbow rivers. The Source Water Protection Plan is a “multi-barrier approach to providing safe, clean drinking water” that starts by considering source water from the Bow and Elbow rivers and continues through water treatment and distribution. Authors of the report state that one of the main drivers for developing the plan was “greater awareness of the need for environmental stewardship and conservation, including cumulative effects management addressing multiple stressors, such as land use change and climate change.”

This motivation fits well with the ERWP’s goals of encouraging best water management and land use practices as well as encouraging individuals and groups to take responsibility for their watershed.

Many individuals and groups already take responsibility for the state of the Elbow watershed. Members of the Weaselhead/Glenmore Park Preservation Society (WGPPS), for example, fought for decades to keep the proposed Southwest Calgary Ring Road project from crossing sensitive wetlands. Naturalist Lisa Dahlseide admits the group lost that fight but said members are still working hard to minimize impacts from the ring road, now under construction and slated to open to traffic in 2021.

As part of the ring road project, about 1.4 kilometres of the Elbow River was realigned in the Transportation Utility Corridor west of 37th Street SW earlier this year. Adam Johnson, communications advisor with Alberta Transportation, said in an email that “The river realignments were completed during the appropriate fish spawning window earlier this year, which was in April [2018].” Construction of stormwater ponds north and south of the alignment continues, and the project remains on track, Johnson said.

Dahlseide said in an email that, since April of this year, the WGPPS has noted two spills into a beaver pond in the Weaselhead from the construction area. Turbidity was elevated at an “alarming” rate, she said, adding, “We initially felt that it was just mud added to the pond . . . but now we are concerned that contaminants may have also been part of the spill.”

The WGPPS is also concerned that construction has encroached on the 30-metre buffer zone required by Alberta Environment and Parks between roadway construction and the beaver pond. Invasive plants are also a concern for the group as is the impact on local wildlife since construction in the area now continues 24 hours a day until the end of December.

The ring road project, which includes 31 kilometres of 6- and 8-lane divided highway, 47 bridges, 14 interchanges and 3 crossings over the Elbow River and Fish Creek, is undeniably a huge undertaking, but it is not the only development in the Elbow watershed.

The hamlet of Bragg Creek is working on a flood mitigation project, and the Government of Alberta is considering building another flood mitigation project in Springbank. The Springbank project, called SR1, would consist of a 70.2 million m3 off-stream storage reservoir, a diversion structure and channel, an off-stream storage dam, outlet works and road modifications. http://www.transportation.alberta.ca/sr1.htm 

In addition to these projects are the ongoing challenges to the Elbow from riparian disturbance, notably in areas such as Silvester and McLean creeks, two tributaries that are prone to damage from recreational users. According to aquatic biologist Dave Mayhood, water and wetlands need to be protected in a number of ways: by reducing linear disturbance (e.g., roads, highways, trails, etc.); reducing clearcut areas; and protecting riparian zones to decrease sedimentation and increase the chance of survival for certain fish species, such as Westslope Cutthroat trout. Click here to read our ERWP article.

Stormwater pollution, wildfires and contamination of the river and riparian regions from transportation corridors, industry, livestock and recreation also create potential risks to the quality of water in the Elbow River and its watershed.

Last but not least among risks to the Elbow River is climate change. Data compiled by Drs. David Schindler and Bill Donahue from the University of Edmonton shows that climate change will likely have a significant impact in Alberta. According to the scientists, “precipitation is expected to decrease, evaporation will increase, the effect of UV light and acid rain will increase, and cold water fish such as trout may lose portions of their habitat.”

Robert Sandford, who holds the EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, agrees that climate change combined with human actions can influence water not only locally but globally. Humans need time to adjust to the way the climate acts now, he said in an article for the ERWP (can link to it here), and prepare for a future that includes amplified weather, such as fierce storms, floods and wildfires. However, Sandford seemed optimistic that people can make a change for the better when it comes to water. "If everyone protects, restores and respects the natural functions of our local ecosystems,” Sandford said in an interview with the ERWP, “we can influence the health of a whole watershed and therefore the way water behaves in it." Click here to read our article.

The ERWP would like to influence the health of the Elbow River with its State of the Watershed report, which will bring together groups and individuals to document many of the challenges and issues noted above. Ideally, this collaborative effort will lead to the creation of a new Elbow River Watershed Management Plan and, ultimately, promotion and support of good watershed management.

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” – W.H. Auden

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elbow_watershed RT @ConserveAlberta: Buy your 2019 fishing licence today and get the most value out of it! What other hobby can you do for $2.33 a month?…
elbow_watershed Marina sharing about last fall's #riparianrestoration work in the Elbow watershed at the Westslope Cutthroat Trout… https://t.co/o41clPAYFj
elbow_watershed the Watershed Heritage interpretive trail awaits your feet! - https://t.co/XWmnzObBvv