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Board Meeting and Water Availability in the Lower Athabasca River Basin
Friday Read and Science | boreal, hydrology, Science, water, watershed, and wetland | November 2021

Ashley Johnson, Education and Outreach Coordinator

On November 22nd, the AWC held another board meeting. It started off with a thank you to outgoing board members, and an introduction to the new Athabasca County councilors. This was followed by a round of introductions and a land acknowledgment. 

We then get into what I considered the highlight of the board meeting, a presentation from board member Scott Ketcheson. Dr. Ketcheson is a Canada Research Chair in Hydrological Sustainability with Athabasca University. He gave a presentation on ‘Understanding Water Availability for Wetlands and Streams in the Lower Athabasca River Basin’.  

Dr. Ketcheson started off his presentation with the following context: he studies hydrological processes in Northern Alberta, a region dominated by the Boreal Plains. Half of the Boreal Plains is made up of wetlands. Despite being so rich in wetlands, there is low runoff efficiency which means that rainfall hits the ground and most of it stays there, rather than reaching the rivers and streams throughout the landscape.  

A map showing Dr. Ketcheson’s primary research area. Map courtesy of Dr. Ketcheson.

In the mid- to lower basin, the Athabasca River has more water moving through it, but only because it is draining a larger area than in the high basin. As the size of the basin increases, the amount of water flowing in the river does not increase as quickly.  Trying to understand how, and why this is, can be challenging because much of the lower basin is remote and difficult to access. This leads to an information deficiency around regions like boreal upland landforms—the ‘mountains’ of northern Alberta—which can have an enormous impact on hydrology.  

Researchers in the field. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ketcheson.

The boreal upland landforms’ impact on hydrology is what led Dr. Ketcheson to Stony Mountain, which is just south of Fort McMurray. He set up the Stony Mountain Headwater Catchment Observatory to look at fine-scale hydrological processes. One of his findings was that Stony Mountain has more water than expected. In fact, it has 55% higher water from rainfall than the 30-year climate normal (which is recorded at the nearby Fort McMurray airport). 

Stony Mountain. Orange areas show higher elevation. Map courtesy of Dr. Ketcheson.

Dr. Ketcheson partnered with a tech company and set up a monitoring network to examine some regional scale processes. The low-power, wide-area sensor network allows him to remotely access data from the monitoring stations in near real-time.  

Wetland Monitoring, photo courtesy of Dr. Ketcheson.

Monitoring these remote areas helps us learn about hydrology across the area, as well as through time. The same location can experience huge runoff variability, with water going straight into storage in dry conditions.  

Dr. Ketcheson is also partnering with other researchers to look at soil properties and water movement in and around seismic lines, and the impact of soil types on forest fires. 

Photo of a seismic line, courtesy of Dr. Ketcheson.

After Dr. Ketcheson’s presentation, our executive director Petra went over our 3-year strategic plan, highlighting how we’re working on achieving the goals we’ve outlined within it. From there, it was on to some administrative stuff, and all of us hoping that we’ll be able to have in-person meetings again soon!