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The Athabasca River Watershed

A watershed is an area of land that holds water that eventually drains into a large body of water, like a lake, river, or ocean. The boundaries of a watershed are determined by the topography of the landscape. Mountains or ridges are the natural dividers of watersheds. The Continental Divide is an example of a large ridge that divides river systems that flow into the west (into the Pacific Ocean) from river systems that flow into the east (into the Atlantic or the Arctic Oceans).

Water is everywhere. It’s in lakes, sloughs, and puddles. It’s in rivers, creeks, streams, and underground aquifers. It comes from rain, snow, hail, and melting glaciers. All water flows downhill, and if that water eventually ends up in the Athabasca River, then it’s in our watershed.

The Athabasca River is approximately 1,231 km long, flowing from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park all the way to Lake Athabasca. The Columbia Icefield may be significantly melted in the next 50 years, with potential impacts to water quality in the Athabasca River. The Athabasca River watershed is 159,000 square km in size, covering roughly 24% of Alberta’s landmass. The mean annual discharge of the river gets calculated at 3 locations, and is recorded in cubic decametres (1 dam³ = 1000 cubic metres). In Jasper it is 2,790,000 dam³; 13,600,000 dam³ at Athabasca, and 20,860,000 dam³ at Fort McMurray. Our watershed is diverse, including all or parts of 13 Municipal Districts, 3 Specialized Municipalities, 10 Towns, 9 Summer Villages, 1 village and 4 Improvement Districts. It spans over Treaty 6, Treaty 8 and Treaty 10 territories and is the home of many Indigenous people. It contains sub-watersheds such as the Pembina River watershed and the Clearwater River watershed. It also contains several working landscapes that support agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, recreation and more.

Watersheds 101 Diagram

To manage the water that we all depend on, we must effectively manage the land that we share. To do that, let’s come together to understand the issues, challenges, and opportunities affecting our watershed. The Athabasca Watershed Council works to bring stakeholders, citizens, and Indigenous peoples together to effectively manage the Athabasca River Watershed.

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