Conserving Our Headwaters

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

They are some of the most spectacular regions of the country. They support a variety of fish and wildlife and are the sources of our fresh water. They supply the water needs of three provinces and the Northwest Territories. Of course I’m talking about the headwaters of our river systems in Alberta, all in the Rocky Mountains and foothills. These areas also provide many other resources, both renewable (e.g., forestry, grazing) and non-renewable (e.g., petroleum, minerals), as well as many recreational opportunities for Albertans. With our ever-growing human population, exploitation of these resources and recreational opportunities often come into conflict and threaten the quality of our environment and fresh water.

Skyline Trail

Alberta’s headwaters are the sources of water for three provinces and the Northwest Territories

Headwaters are generally defined as the source waters of a river or stream furthest from its estuary or confluence with another river. It’s not surprising the headwaters of Alberta’s major rivers are in the Rockies. Mountain systems intercept the movement of weather systems, forcing air to rise and cool, condensing water vapor into rain or snow. Since most of our weather comes from the west coast and British Columbia has many more mountain ranges, much of that precipitation falls before reaching our province. However, some does fall on the east side of the Continental Divide, mostly in the form of snow in winter.

If more snow accumulates in the high mountains in winter than is melted in the summer, permanent snowfields develop. If these grow larger and increase in depth, the snow is compressed into ice. If the ice becomes massive enough to start moving down slope, it is a glacier. The Rockies have many large glaciers in its alpine regions. Indeed the Rockies’ glaciers used to fill the mountain valleys and extend into the plains of Alberta. Since that time they have receded to where they are now, and for many years in the early 20th century were quite stable, some years increasing in size and others decreasing. With the current climate crisis, the glaciers are retreating very fast indeed. Some experts are predicting most will be gone in 30 to 50 years.

This is a disaster in the making. The glaciers are the major source of water for our rivers and underground aquifers. They supply water when the snow has all gone in the mountains and rain is scarce. If they disappear, many of our streams will run dry at crucial times of the year. Also, wells could run dry as more water is pumped out of aquifers than is replaced. Unfortunately, we know very little about the state of our aquifers in this province (although the government is racing to make up for that lack of knowledge with its Provincial Groundwater Inventory Program).

The glacier melt is out of our control. Climate change will run its course (although actions now to control green-house-gas emissions will affect what happens with the climate 30 years from now). However, there are things we can do now to conserve what water and resources we have today. Forests are crucial in holding back and storing the water and preventing rapid, erosive runoff. The riparian habitats that line our streams and lakes ensure the water entering those water bodies is clean and cool.

Along the Skyline Trail

Our headwaters provide prime recreational opportunities for many Albertans and visitors.

Albertans have long recognized the importance of our headwaters. In 1977 Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives introduced the Eastern Slopes Policy, designed to protect the watersheds from uncontrolled exploitation by oil, gas, mining and forestry companies. Unfortunately, successive governments bent to industry pressures and progressively watered down the policy and its enforcement to allow for more development and degradation of much of the watersheds and their accompanying fish and wildlife habitats.

Such erosion of policy does not go unnoticed and for years many organizations lobbied for more protection of headwater lands. Finally in 2008 the Alberta Government introduced the Land Use Framework (LUF) to plan land use across the province. The process has taken a lot longer than originally proposed (it was to be finished by 2012). It turns out land-use planning is complicated when all interests are taken into account. As of this writing we have two completed regional plans (Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan) and one plan in progress (North Saskatchewan). The South and North Saskatchewan plans deal with river headwaters in the Rockies.

As I pointed out in this column last September (2014), many conservation organizations believe the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan leaves a lot to be desired in terms of protecting areas critical for fish, wildlife and water in the headwaters region. The plan proposes the Castle region be designated a wildlands park, which should restrict resource development. However, the plan does not go far enough in protecting the rest of this headwater region so crucial to life in southern Alberta. Perhaps the new government will see this shortcoming for what it is and move to extend protection from the Castle to Kananaskis Country. This would preserve a variety of hunting and fishing opportunities away from motorized travel, provided hunters and anglers are involved in the discussions.

Phase 1 of the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan has been completed and involved public consultations from which the Regional Advisory Council is now preparing its “Recommendation to Government” report that will form the basis for a first draft of the regional plan. The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative (Y2Y) have provided input as to the need for the Bighorn Wildland to be protected (east of Banff and Jasper parks). It is one of the few areas that remains roadless in the Alberta foothills, and is habitat for many wildlife species, including bighorn sheep, elk and grizzly bear. As described by the AWA, the government designated the area a wildland recreation area in 1986 but never passed legislation to make it formal. Instead, sections of it are protected as Forest Land Use Zones. The three organizations would like to see the area designated as a wildlands park, again where hunting and fishing would be allowed without use of motorized vehicles.

Unlike those three conservation organizations, the Alberta Fish and Game Association has been “missing in action” with regard to promoting the protection of headwaters in the two regional plans. However, with its recent regime change (and that of the government) perhaps the AFGA is finally acknowledging its history and roots. On June 17, it cosigned a letter, along with the AWA, CPAWS, Y2Y, Alberta Trappers Association, Athabasca Bioregional Society, Northern Light Fly Fishers, Peace Country Flyfishers Association, Peace River Environmental Society and Trout Unlimited Canada, to the Minister of Environment and Parks. The letter outlined the concerns all these organizations and many Albertans have about the speed of resource development in the upper Peace, Smoky and Athabasca River watersheds in northwest Alberta. The letter asked to meet with the minister to discuss specific issues. These rivers are in LUF regions where planning has yet to start. However, the letter illustrates that we cannot wait for the glacial LUF process to occur before taking action to conserve some very important resources that are under serious threat from oil and gas exploration and unbridled forestry operations. Perhaps it’s time for our government to take some leadership in protecting what’s truly valuable in the long run for Albertans.

Comments are always welcome (below).

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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