Water Management in Alberta’s Boreal
AWC-WPAC, Events, Stakeholders, and Watershed Issues | April 2023
Ashley Johnson, Education and Outreach Coordinator
On February 15th and 16th, we had the pleasure of collaborating with the Lesser Slave Watershed Council (LSWC) and the Mighty Peace Watershed Alliance (MPWA) on ‘Water Management in Alberta’s Boreal’. The conference began with a prayer from Elder Moosim in both Cree and English.
The initial talk was from Rhonda, Meghan and Petra, the executive directors of our northern WPACs. They gave an overview of what WPACs are, why we formed, and some of the work that we do! If you’re not sure what a WPAC is, here’s a refresher: Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) are independent, non-profit organizations that report on watershed health, engage with stakeholders and facilitate collaborative planning, education, and stewardship. Water Management in Alberta’s Boreal was an opportunity for our northern WPACs to share knowledge and bring together stakeholders from across Alberta’s north.
The conference was divided into themed sessions, with the first session focused on industry and municipal water management. Amanda Buchanan, who works for Coalspur Mines, gave us an overview of the legislation in place to regulate water use in coal mines, and discussed the ways in which Coalspur Mines manage their water use. I learned that they aim to use a strategy called ‘progressive reclamation’, which Amanda summarized as an approach which strategizes how and where they mine to minimize the area currently disturbed, to retain as much of the natural landscape as possible.
Alison Moeller with West Fraser joined us virtually for her talk on water use, treatment, and monitoring in the pulp and paper sector. Many of us in the audience were surprised to learn that sludge, one of the by-products of the pulp process, can actually be used by farmers as fertilizer!
One of the presentations I was looking forward to the most was from Dr. Rodney Guest, on oil sands tailing water management. I learned Suncor was one of the first oil sand mines, and when they started, they weren’t focused on releasing water because there was a steady demand for more! Eventually, Suncor was able to reduce their water use (they’ve reduced the amount they draw from the Athabasca River by approximately 80% since 2003), and are now researching ways to treat their tailings water. The end of the Suncor mine is approaching, and I’m excited to learn more about their reclamation plan activities.
The last presentation of the morning session was from Greg Pippus with Aquatera Utilities, who provide water and wastewater treatment services for a number of communities including Grande Prairie. He talked about the landscape in Grande Prairie, and how they withdraw water from the Wapiti River and prepare wastewater for release back into the river. We learned that wastewater sludge can also be used as fertilizer with a bit of treatment to ensure it meets the land application requirements, but no one’s taken them up on it!
After lunch, our talks were focused on water quality monitoring and management planning. Nathan Ballard gave a technical talk on the Lower Athabasca Surface Water Quality Management Framework. The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan is undergoing its mandatory ten-year review (learn more here). While the focus was on the Lower Athabasca, he discussed some trends and patterns in the context of the entire basin. The main takeaway for me was that the river is heavily influenced by the bedrock geology it cuts through, and while some ions are trending upwards, they’re still well below drinking water safety guidelines.
Adam Norris with the MPWA told us about the work they’ve accomplished on the Grimshaw Gravel Aquifer. The aquifer is so close to the surface that hand wells can be dug to access the water, which means that it can be polluted easily as well. The MPWA helped the community develop a source water protection plan, and a watershed management plan. Some of the action items like more stringent bylaws for potential threats to the aquifer are already completed!
The last talk of the session was from Meghan and Adam. They gave an overview of some of the WPAC-led water quality monitoring initiatives that are taking place. Read more on the LSWC’s work here: https://www.lswc.ca/a_day_in_the_life_of_a_lake_sampler, and on some of the MPWA’s work at https://www.mightypeacewatershedalliance.org/projects/redwillow-watershed-restoration/.
The first day of the conference ended with a banquet dinner and a keynote address by Lorne Fitch, which will have its own blog post, so keep an eye out!
The second day of the conference started with a session focused on supporting aquatic biodiversity. Our opening talk was from Elliott Lindsey with Trout Unlimited Canada and focused on our native trout! We heard how the distribution of bull trout, Athabasca rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, and lake trout have changed over time, with the overwhelming trend being one of decline. Trout Unlimited Canada is working to stop that decline by leveraging partnerships and working across the landscape to address habitat fragmentation and degradation.
Ngaio Baril with the Foothills Stream Crossing Partnership (FSCP) gave us an overview of the organization and their success. FSCP’s mandate is to “improve watershed health through inventorying, prioritizing and mitigating stream crossings”. They achieve their mandate by working with industry to identify stream crossings, and remediate the ones that are causing barriers to fish passage.
Kerri O’Shaughnessy gave us a talk on behalf of Cows & Fish. She reviewed the definition of stewardship, and discussed ways in which Cows and Fish helps facilitate community action.
Susanne Stevenson gave the last talk of this session, and it was on comparing electrofishing and eDNA for detecting Athabasca Rainbow Trout! She gave a great breakdown of the costs (electrofishing is more time-consuming, and the initial equipment cost is very high), as well as discussing some of the limitations of each method. eDNA can only detect the presence or absence of rainbow trout, and can’t yet distinguish between Athabasca Rainbow trout and regular rainbow trout.
The last session of the conference was all about wetlands and riparian areas. Bin Xu gave a great talk on boreal peatland restoration, and highlighted some of the work that NAIT Boreal Center has been undertaking in Alberta’s north. It was followed up by a talk from Rick Murray with Ducks Unlimited Canada. Cassandra Chabot-Madlung discussed how municipalities are now able to leverage the Wetland Replacement Program, and Meghan Payne shared some of the ways that WPACs support wetland and riparian stewardship.
Overall, the conference was a huge success, and we’re excited to be able to share some of what we learned! We’ve compiled the presentations in a drop box folder along with a summary of “what we heard” from the sticky note wall and event evaluations. Access it here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/j3ern2ps8el7rcd/AAAoUw_IkMPPFMsT0C4jYGj4a?dl=0