Watershed in a state of decline

Most watersheds within the Red Deer River system are becoming tainted by agricultural run-off, shore-line development, oil and gas activity, and the loss of vegetation and wetland.

Most watersheds within the Red Deer River system are becoming tainted by agricultural run-off, shore-line development, oil and gas activity, and the loss of vegetation and wetland.

Red Deer River Watershed Alliance gave good marks to only two out of 15 sub-watersheds that are part of the Red Deer River system in a report presented to Monday at a public meeting at the Westerner.

In the non-profit group’s State of the Watershed Report, only the remote and mountainous Panther sub-watershed, located at the headwaters of the Red Deer River west of Sundre, and the sparsely populated Alkali watershed, east of Drumheller near the Saskatchewan border, were considered in “good” condition, attaining marks of A+ to A-.

“Poor” grades of C+ to C- were given to five Central Alberta sub-watersheds — the Blindman, Medicine, Buffalo, Kneehill and Michichi systems. The lower water quality was attributed to the loss of native vegetation, higher surface water nutrient levels — indicating fertilizer, manure, sewage contamination — road development, and oil and gas activity.

The eight remaining sub-watersheds in the Red Deer River system received a middling grade of B+ to B- in the report. Among these is Red Deer’s Waskasoo watershed, as well as the Raven, James, Little Red Deer, Threehills, Rosebud, Berry and Matzhiwin systems.

Jay White, of Aquality Environmental Consulting of Edmonton, said the Waskasoo system actually has as many poor indicators as fair ones. But it was placed in the latter category because of all the things the City of Red Deer was doing right, such as leaving green buffers along Waskasoo Creek within the park system, and treating sewage and other discharge before putting it into the Red Deer River.

On the negative side, the city has lost wetlands and natural vegetation. And, like other watersheds, Waskasoo has huge “gaps” in data, including no information on riparian health, minimum water flow, parasites, bacteria and pesticides.

White stressed that more monitoring is needed for all Alberta waterways — and city councillors Cindy Jefferies and Larry Pimm agreed.

Jefferies said all levels of government need to ensure “we don’t have another Walkerton” — referring to Ontario’s contaminated water tragedy.

Pimm said he is anxious to get the regional sewage treatment system up and running.

The Red Deer River watershed forms the largest sub-basin of the South Saskatchewan River Basin, and is the only river in the Southern part of Alberta that’s still available for new water licenses.

White said he wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings, determined by comparing “indicators,” such as nitrogen and phosphorus levels, land cover, manure production, and development. “We knew… these are hard-working watersheds, but there’s a lot of opportunity here. Municipalities need to… play a bigger role and take ownership of their aquatic resources.”

The Alliance’s executive-director, Beverly Anderson is pleased that Red Deer County is compensating farmers that fence off riperian areas from their cattle.

But White believes municipalities can go even further — for instance, by loaning off-site cattle watering devices to area farmers. Once producers see their cattle are in better health and gaining weight faster than while drinking from dugouts and creeks, they will realize the device pays for itself, he added. “There are innovative ways… you don’t have to legislate everything…”

Edith Pettie, one of 30 people who attended the meeting, is very concerned about the future of water in this province.

Since water is fundamental to life, Pettie said all Albertans should be pressuring their MLAs to spend more money on monitoring — a budget item the government is instead looking at reducing by two-thirds.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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