Let’s Protect Edmonton’s Headwaters

This Op-Ed was originally published in the Edmonton Journal on December 27, 2016
Photo by Marcus Becker

Ask Edmontonians where their water comes from and they know: the North Saskatchewan River.

Our city is built upon and is continually shaped by the river; it is why Fort Edmonton was built here in 1795, it has influenced the design of our roads and neighbourhoods, and it gives us beautiful vistas and wonderful recreational opportunities. And it provides all of this city’s drinking water.

But where does the river itself get its water? That answer lies a three-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of the city in the mountains and foothills near the small town of Nordegg. That picturesque area is better known as Bighorn Country – and almost 90 per cent of the capital region’s water originates there.

Only two per cent of Edmonton’s water comes off the Saskatchewan Glacier in Banff National Park. A whopping 86 per cent comes from the mountains and foothills in Bighorn Country east of the park, from four sub-watersheds that make up Edmonton’s headwaters. So much water comes to us from the Bighorn that by the time the North Saskatchewan River winds its way through the town of Rocky Mountain House, 88 per cent of Edmonton’s water is in the system.

Right now the Bighorn is in pretty good shape. Its forests are relatively intact thanks to a legacy of local, volunteer stewardship in the area, and there is little industrial activity. However, the area has the potential to be developed for oil, gas and coal mining, and the foothills are already subject to forestry activity and intense pressure from recreational activities – from hiking and horseback riding to random camping and motorized off-highway vehicle use. These activities impact our water supply by fragmenting the forest, limiting its ability to filter our water, and increasing contaminants and sediment in the water.

Climate change is also impacting our water supply. The summer of 2015 marked the lowest flows on the North Saskatchewan River in 14 years, while high levels of rainfall in August 2016 resulted in unusually high flows. Because of this, increased colour and debris in the water made it difficult for EPCOR to treat fast enough to keep up with our demand. Edmontonians were asked to limit their water usage, and while EPCOR maintains backup reservoirs to sustain us, these reservoirs can only provide Edmonton with water for one to two days.

Imagine what could happen if our headwaters were allowed to deteriorate any further because we failed to take action to properly manage our public lands – we may see our city subject to boil-water advisories and pay increased taxes for more water treatment.

On Dec. 12, 2016, Cam Westhead, MLA for Banff-Cochrane introduced a motion in the legislature: “Be it resolved that the legislative assembly urge the government to increase its efforts to conserve and manage public lands in Alberta’s headwater regions to optimize downstream water security for future generations of Albertans.”

The motion passed, with NDP and Liberal MLAs supporting it unanimously. About half of the Wildrose party MLAs voted for it, while PC MLAs voted against it.

Water security impacts everyone, regardless of political affiliation. In a recent survey conducted by eNRG and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, 83 per cent of Edmontonians and 68 per cent of rural residents in Bighorn Country supported protection of the Bighorn. Our elected representatives are tasked with managing public resources, such as land and water, with the best interests of both current and future generations in mind. Protecting our headwaters is not only the obvious, responsible action that our elected officials need to take in Alberta, it is the popular one.

Westhead’s motion is the first step in the right direction. As Edmontonians, we now need to call upon our government to keep the momentum going. Let’s ask for our headwaters to be conserved and protected so that Edmonton, and more importantly our future generations, can continue to be shaped by the North Saskatchewan River. #LoveYourHeadwaters.

Alison Ronson is executive director of the Northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. She lives and works in Edmonton.

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