Can we slow down natural disasters through sustainable environmental practise? I think that we can.

Sustainability Files


The Economic Center of Canada Compromised

– Posted by Lisa M. Fox June 24th, 2013

Mother Nature has just dealt southern Alberta and the emerging epicenter of Canada an incredible blow. But like a great CSI drama, is it possible that it is simply not so simple? Did she have accomplices, witting and unwitting that set up the perfect circumstances? This incredibly serious situation warrants a much closer look…

Glaciers are set to disappear by the end of the Century – why do we care?

Did you know that Glacier water accounts for 2.5% of Flows in the Bow River and in dry years, glacier water can account for up to 16% upstream of Banff.  In one of the lowest flow years in record (1970) the glacier water accounted for 47% of flows and over 70% through Lake Louise.
According to Dr. David Marshall, Canadian Crysphere Network, a research institute out of the University of Saskatchewan the Glaciers that are contributing to Southern Alberta will likely be gone before the end of this century

This June, the Bow River flowed at a record 1458 m3/ second – five times its normal rate and double the high flows of the 2005 which some call a “1:100 year flood” while Alberta Environment listed it as a 1:10.  The Elbow River contributes almost 20% of the drinking water to the City of Calgary and 15% of the flows of the Bow River. The Ghost watershed contributes 7% of the flows into the Bow River.  According to data tracked by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development,”in the space of a day or two, the flows of the three rivers rocketed up five to 10 times their normal rates.” 100,000 people evacuated from their homes. 27 state of emergencies declared. $1,000,000,000 committed to relief from the province of Alberta.  7 lives lost.

Land Use in our Headwaters

The Ghost Watershed includes ~6,400 hectares of wetlands with a river and stream network of ~805 km. The Ghost is home to over 2000 trails and linear disturbance lines for forestry, recreation, and agriculture with less than 190 of these trails and roads actually approved and governed by policy and land use indicating a total lack of enforcement. The local watershed group there has been conducting studies and lobbying for years to increase protection with landowners contributing out of pocket money to studies and planning processes with little impact on the management of public lands for watershed values. 

Dr. Uldis Silins, professor of Forest Hydrology at the University of Alberta has been heading up a study on the water impacts of deforested landscapes in Alberta’s Foothills (our foothills account for almost 90% of river flows coming from the upland headwaters). The study looks to the impacts of the 2003 Lost Creek Forest Fire in the Crowsnest Pass and provides evidence of almost 50% increase in runoff volumes coming from some parts of the newly deforested landscape in addition to up to 40 times the amount of sediments flowing off disturbed watersheds as compared to natural ecosystems.

Dr. Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta….says “a crisis in water quantity and quality with far-reaching implications” is likely to hit the Prairies because of global warming and evidence indicating the 20th century was a climatic fluke, the only extended period of moist conditions the region has had during the past 2,000 years. 

Everyone is upstream of someone. Are we adequately protecting the headwaters for our downstream neighbours? What is the cost of forestry, recreation and other land-use in our headwaters and does this account for water treatment and flood mitigation?

Planning for the Unmanageable

In Alberta’s 2005 flood, over 15 communities were affected with extensive damages including cities of Red Deer, Calgary, as well as some First Nations communities. Federal disaster insurance payout of 84 million, 55 million in provincial relief and 300 million in insurance payouts. The total costs of the 2005 flood to the community of High River alone was estimated at 519 million (IBC, 2008).

In the fall of that year (2005), former Highwood MLA Goerge Groeneveld led efforts to develop a flood mitigation strategy for Alberta that would include 18 recommendations for municipal flood protection and flood plain management.  This strategy has, at the time of writing, yet to be implemented as we enter what is now being called a 1:200 year flood scenario with massive costs to the people of Alberta in property, revenue, and lives.

Since 2005, the Town of High River has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and commenced a four-phase Flood Management Master Plan (FMMP) and commissioned extensive flood mapping and hydrological studies.  “Over 15% of the Municipal Budget for High River goes to flood mitigation” says Councilor Tim Whitford, Town of High River. In reviewing simple areal photos of the devastation of floods this past week, one can certainly see that 80% of the community is situated directly in the floodplain. There is no flood insurance in Canada for homeowners…

It will be interesting to watch the knee-jerk reaction of policy makers to come down on municipalities to enforce flood plain protection, but is this really the only solution we should be focusing on? Is there a bigger picture?

Droughts & Floods – Where have we come from and where do we go?

I recall a story I heard eight years ago when I first joined the Bow River Basin Council, our local watershed organization responsible for advising the government of Alberta on policy and planning decisions in the region.

A traveler had come to Alberta in advance of the turn of the 20th century and declared this land we love inhospitable and uninhabitable due to the lack of water and dry arid soil that stretched for hundreds of miles in all directions. The traveler was John Palliser 1863.

The dust bowl referred to as “Palliser’s Triangle” was quickly claimed for ranchers and stated unfit for farming. Although, the heat and the soil made for a rich opportunity for irrigated farmlands and the heart and sole of community settlement. If only we could control the water… the Canadian Pacific Railway sparked the “land rush” that would see hundreds of families stake a claim to Southern Alberta’s most inhabitable land. The heat, the wind, the wildfires, and the droughts hit these families worst in the 1920s and punished them well into the depression years of the 1930s. Some may say that the incredible hardship of settling the prairies shaped our culture and Alberta’s persistent drive to conquer the forces of adversity (nature). Food for thought. 

Since then Alberta hit oil – literally. The drive to feed an oil hungry world with an ever increasing appetite meant rapidly expanding our energy wealth and building bigger and bigger towns and cities to accommodate the rush. At the same time, we were also continuing to expand irrigation canals across the south to feed the mouths of world too. 

Water licenses for irrigation in southern Alberta account for almost 75% of available water (on average over 80% of this is consumptive seasonal use that doesn’t return to the river). Irrigation contributes 20 percent of Alberta’s agricultural production on 5% of cultivated land. Irrigation districts convey water to Alberta rural settlements, manage reservoirs, and are a major contributor to our local economies.  Alberta is the irrigated agricultural capital of Canada.

“future water availability in southern Alberta does not look encouraging, even without considering the expected increasing water demands of a growing economy and population” David Sauchyn

David Sauchyn, Senior Research Scientist at the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) uses samples of tree rings from ancient and confirms the potential for another modern-day dustbowl in Alberta’s bright emerald green pachwork of irrigation pivots and sprawling water dependent cities and towns yet the floodwaters calm the urgency to a small yet nagging plea for us to be prepared.

It has been pointed out several times in the past couple years that our frame of reference in Alberta really only spans the past two generations… really – the history of Alberta and water demonstrates with some certainty that there are periods of 10-30 year droughts that we, with a population of 3.75 million people simply can’t possibly hope to endure with our current patterns of people and industry.

It is important to note that this science merely provides a glimpse into a history of decadal drought and the potentials for climate impacts. Using science of the past to model our future is but one of the tools we have to shape policy. The watershed community urgently needs to take an integrated and coordinated approach to assessing the value and application of both new and old science to inform land use (watershed) management planning and policy. 

We must recognize the many changes on our landscape, the needs of our communities and industries, and apply an integrated approach to mitigating the increasing impacts of both climate variation and land use. Science must inform policy and planning in Alberta.

Are we prepared to measure the potential impacts of land use and climate variability on our communities, irrigation, and our province and employ full cost accounting principles to natural resource development and the management of infrastructure in our headwaters?

Before we convict mother nature for the hardships we are facing today, perhaps it is time to pay heed to the past, the present and the future of how we live on this land and seek to balance the ebb and flow of her resources and our reliance upon them.


Credits & Resources 

Photo: Dust storm rolling in over Pearce, Alberta, November 1942 November 1942 © Sir Alexander Galt Museum and Archives


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