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.
by Ann Sullivan
Mountain headwaters receive and produce a disproportionate amount of global precipitation and runoff. But hydrological systems in alpine areas—how water is stored and released and its effects downstream—are still poorly understood. Dr. Rich Petrone and fellow researchers hope to change that. Petrone, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, is working on a study of alpine wetlands that draws on the knowledge of local stakeholders as well as stewardship groups like the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP).
“A lot of our research questions are developed in consultation with end users,” Petrone said, and this adds an applied aspect to the research. For example, in the Ghost and Elbow River watersheds, stewardship groups have noted that off-road trails can disturb wetland areas as much as or more than industries such as logging. “It seemed like a common theme around there,” Petrone said, “because tourism and recreation are so huge, almost as big as harvesting [logging].” To keep local priorities in mind, representatives from government and the private sector will be at the table from the beginning to the end of the project, he added.
By Ann Sullivan
Conservation biologists tend to be a grumpy bunch, according to Dave Mayhood. But with help from stewardship organizations like the Elbow River Watershed Partnership, maybe Mayhood and his colleagues will start feeling positive about changes in Alberta’s water bodies and riparian zones.
Mayhood, an aquatic ecologist and president of FWR Freshwater Research Limited, has been working to bring attention to the state of Alberta’s native Westslope Cutthroat Trout as their population declines and sedimentation of their habitat increases. He is currently researching sediment loading to several streams in the McLean Creek Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), one of the few remaining areas with genetically pure stocks of Westslope Cutthroat Trout.
One hundred years ago, Westslope Cutthroat Trout were an abundant species in the Upper Bow and Oldman River systems and mostly likely the Milk River too. These days there’s almost nothing left of those pure stocks. It’s a classical conservation issue, says Mayhood: a very small population in a fragmented and highly unproductive habitat. Some of the creeks in which cutthroat are still found are tiny—just several kilometres long and narrow enough to easily jump across. Others, like Silvester Creek in the Elbow River watershed, are loaded with sediment from off-highway vehicle (OHV) traffic, pipeline rights of way and trail and road surface erosion.
Native cutthroat stocks started declining decades ago, through a combination of overfishing and hybridization with introduced trout species. About five year ago, the federal government listed the Westslope Cutthroat Trout as “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Mayhood would argue that the species is endangered, not just threatened, and notes that the government has created a recovery strategy for the species but still needs an action plan to save it.
by Ann Sullivan
Rae Glacier melts and the Elbow River runs faster. Stop the flow and the river must stop too, correct? Well, no. Although glacial extent has become smaller due to changes in climate, stream flows in the Elbow have remained similar. To Éowyn Campbell, this means that water in the river is coming not only from glacial melt but from other places as well. Finding those places is the subject of Campbell’s PhD research at the University of Calgary.
Working with supervisor Dr. Cathy Ryan and funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant, Campbell is studying the “role of the river-connected alluvial aquifer (RCAA) of eastern-slopes rivers in storing and releasing water to the open stream.” She hopes her research will allow for a better understanding of river water and water sustainability. For example, how many drought years can the Elbow River sustain? What is the approximate volume of stored water in the RCAA? And is water storage capacity large enough that it will adjust to varying river flow rates? Given that the Elbow supplies water to about one-sixth of Albertans, this is critical information.
So far, Campbell has identified three places where water is likely being stored and released into the main streamflow of the Elbow: alluvial rocks, deep cracks in the mountains and hill-slope soils. “Once I know what proportion is coming from different sources,” she said, “I can estimate the volume of water stored in those sources and how long those sources would last.”