The North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance works with key partners, including the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Water Council, local stewardship groups and municipalities to implement Alberta’s Water for Life strategy.
Everyone around the world lives in a watershed; we are all connected through our waterways
A watershed is all of the area that captures and funnels water into a large river or another body of water, like a lake or ocean. Many of us enjoy the perks of a healthy watershed…drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water is critical to healthy and happy communities. In Alberta, we have access to fresh, clean water, but with ongoing development, keeping that water fresh and clean requires effort.
We sat down with Watershed Planning Coordinator, Michelle Gordy, Senior Watershed Specialist and Program Manager, Mary Ellen Shain, and former Executive Director, Leah Kongsrude, to learn more about the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, watershed health, and the variety of projects underway to conserve Alberta’s natural waterways.
Pursuing Water for Life takes more than a whole village
The Water for Life strategy seeks to achieve a variety of goals for the Province, including:
Secure, safe drinking water supplies
Healthy aquatic ecosystems
Reliable water supply for a healthy economy
These goals provide the high-level direction to the more specific goals of the NSWA’s Integrated Watershed Management Plan for the basin: to maintain and improve water quality and aquatic ecosystem health, ensure the water flowing into the basin continues meets the needs of its people and ecosystems, and to see watershed management widely incorporated into land-use planning.
So what does implementing these goals look like day to day for the NSWA? As Michelle explains, the council collaborates with municipal staff and counsellors, non-profit organizations, the industry in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, and passionate members of the public who are interested in their local environment to advance the strategy’s goals.
“We bring the relevant people together at the table and ask ‘how are we going to work together to solve this big issue?’ That’s our role; we’re conveners and collaborators, connecting people and ideas, and we help take science and turn it into policy and action on the ground.” -Michelle
Watershed management in Alberta is complex—many different governments are making many different policies for water at the federal, provincial, and municipal scales. And to make matters more interesting, human-designed jurisdictional boundaries don’t follow the naturally occurring boundaries of the watersheds they are trying to manage.
The NSWA plays a unique role in this respect by creating a space where each of those different puzzle pieces can connect to create and protect that larger watershed picture, and being a voice for conservation and watershed health throughout the process.
Rivers, streams, riparian areas and wetlands all have unique and equally important parts to play in creating healthy and vibrant watersheds
Rivers and Streams - Nature’s transportation systems
If a watershed is a giant funnel directing all of our freshwater to one location, then rivers and streams are the channels moving water most quickly. These waterways are like highways connecting the various ecosystems throughout the watershed, delivering water and whisking it away.
On top of connecting ecosystems and transporting water, rivers and streams are popular destinations for all sorts of recreational activities. Healthy rivers provide us with opportunities for fishing, swimming, kayaking, and hiking! An ever-growing amount of research shows that a close proximity to “blue spaces” or bodies of water significantly reduces stress and improves our well-being (Alini, 2018).
Riparian Areas - Biodiversity hubs
Riparian areas are those green areas next to lakes, creeks and rivers bursting with biodiversity. These marginal areas serve an important role in cleaning water flowing off of nearby landscapes before the water enters our rivers, lakes and groundwater. Their sponge-like properties help to mitigate droughts and floods, and the plant life they support prevent erosion. Tree-covered riparian areas also help shade and cool nearby water, which prevents algal blooms and improves habitats for fish and other aquatic critters.
The good news is that across 17,000 km of the areas assessed in the North Saskatchewan Watershed, 46% of riparian areas are in good and healthy condition. The NSWA asks, though, ‘is this where we want to be?’ While there is no ‘magic number’ to ensure there are enough riparian areas to maintain a healthy and thriving watersheds for future generations, the NSWA set a goal of 65% of these riparian areas to be in good condition. Mary Ellen highlights that setting a goal "helps us ask the question ‘do we have the right incentive programs and policies in place to incentivize momentum towards this goal of 65%? ’” The 65% goal creates a target for restoration projects and funding, and helps make sure no part of the watershed is left to the wayside, as gaps in incentives for commercial and residential restoration present themselves.
Measuring Riparian Intactness:
Measuring a riparian area's condition can happen from the air or on the ground. Using satellite imagery, scientists can look across wide landscapes to get a sense of the state of three indicators: vegetation coverage, presence of woody vegetation, and signs of human footprint. On the ground, field-based techniques like species monitoring and soil sampling complete the understanding of the areas's health.
Wetland Wonders - Built-in drought and flood defence
Like riparian and forest soils, wetlands absorb water like a sponge, managing surface run-off and reducing the risk of flooding and erosion. As water sits in a wetland, it slowly filters through the ground, creating cleaner groundwater reserves that can serve as a critical water source during times of drought.
Without wetlands to hold and filter our water, we are faced with distinct challenges. According to Michelle, “if we weren’t to conserve these areas, then we would be suffering a lot more damage. Whether you’re an agricultural landowner or just living in an urban area, you’re gonna be at greater risk to the effects of flood and drought.”
Alberta’s Wetland Policy and the Heartland’s Designated Industrial Zone Pilot:
The Wetland Policy in Alberta is an important tool to ensure what’s lost is restored. As Leah explains, according to the policy, if a wetland is potentially being removed for development purposes, the project proponents must first explore all options to avoid removal at all and to minimize impact. If the wetland must be removed, then it must be compensated for by paying the province a certain amount of money. These dollars are then filtered back to conservation and restoration groups like Ducks Unlimited who replace what’s been lost.
In a perfect world, the wetland would be relocated within the region or on the same plot of land, but unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Leah is particularly excited about the prospects of the Designated Industrial Zone (DIZ) being piloted in the Industrial Heartland, as it opens opportunities to ensure in-region relocation.
“Because the DIZ is so large and industry partners are collaborating, if we lost a wetland in one part of the zone, it’s much more likely that we will be able to restore and create a new wetland in a different area within the zone. There are about a dozen or more industrial companies in the area, and the NSWA can bring them all together and ask ‘What do you have planned for development? How about you? And you?’ then, ‘How can we work together to save as many wetlands and riparian areas as possible, and how can we manage surface drainage to avoid flooding each other’s land?” -Leah
So many of us are removed from nature, so it can be difficult to see how one ecological loss leads to an even greater climate change challenge
So, what happens if these ecosystem services begin to disappear?
We would lose some of the most beautiful recreational areas our province has to offer. Outdoor activities of all kinds will be impacted, and those who rely on the land through fishing, hunting, or harvesting will certainly feel the impacts of ecosystem and biodiversity loss.
We may be at more drastic risk of floods and droughts. If our nature-made flood defences like wetlands and riparian areas are tampered with, then we’ve reduced nature’s ability to absorb water, minimize surface run-off, and store and percolate groundwater.
We may need to shell out more $$$ for quality drinking water. When our water comes from urban water treatment centers, we may not care much about the natural filtration systems throughout the watershed. But we should for a number of reasons. Perhaps most compelling to the masses is the financial reason: filtering dirty water costs more than filtering clean water. If we lose the ability to naturally filter water and reduce sediment through wetlands and riparian areas, then the water arriving to cities for treatment will require more attention. As the cost for techniques required to clean the water increases, so would our utility bills.
In short, damage to our watershed impacts our wallets, our security and our overall quality of life, so everyone—whether living in downtown Edmonton or northern rural Alberta—should care about protecting these natural ecosystems.
NSWA tools to take collective action
Riparian Web Portal
The NSWA’s Riparian Web Portal is an online tool with three main purposes:
Sharing open-source data with the public
Connecting landowners to the broad community of riparian programs and stewardship associations doing restoration and conservation work
Sharing on-the-ground projects in the province to inspire landowners towards taking their own action
Vermilion Projects - Restoring 234 hectares of wetland and 21 km of riparian areas over 6 years
One example of how the portal is being used to support sustainable agriculture projects is through showcasing 44 significant wetland and riparian restoration projects that happened recently in Alberta’s Vermilion Watershed. Learn more about the Vermilion River Watershed Alliance, and the work they are doing to protect their watershed.
WaterSHED Monitoring Program
The WaterSHED Monitoring Program provides the big picture of what’s going on in the entire North Saskatchewan river basin. This unique, and innovative program is the result of the collaborative efforts of the Government of Alberta, EPCOR, the City of Edmonton, and the NSWA to collect real-time water quality and quantity data from tributaries of the North Saskatchewan River.
Scaling up traditional monitoring activity, which is usually limited to sites along the river and within larger cities, this program paints a broader picture of how the North Saskatchewan river flows and changes daily. By stationing cameras in remote locations, they can capture data that was previously missed.
Healthy watersheds are a stepping stone to climate resilience…so what can we all do?
Protecting our water systems, riparian areas and wetlands is one of the most direct ways that many of us can prepare for climate change. Everyone can do their individual part by simple acts everyday like reducing the amount of water that we use, shopping locally, using less herbicides and pesticides. But Michelle breaks down some other meaningful changes both rural and urban residents can contribute to:
Rural watershed champions: “So let’s say you’re a rural resident…you’re an agricultural landowner or producer. If you have wetlands on your property or a stream running through, do anything you can to protect and restore those areas. What you do to the land in your area has an impact on those living and working downstream of you. Build up that riparian area, so that it will not only provide you those ecosystem functions and benefits we’ve been talking about, but to those downstream of you and to the rest of the watershed. ”
Urban watershed champions: “Being involved with your local municipality is huge. Whether you are volunteering…whether you’re voting for somebody who is protecting the ecosystem…encouraging actions at the municipal level that will drive policies and bylaws to better the watershed is really important.”
Erica Alini. (2018). “Being near a body of water makes us calmer and healthier, science shows.” Global News. Retrieved July 21, 2022 from https://globalnews.ca/news/4320204/lake-water-mental-health-blue-space/.
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