“Heart Waters” – The Bow River Book you need to read

Heart Waters

As a writer, photographer, and videographer, seldom arrives a compilation that stops me to consider its absolute quality.

This is one.

Years ago, Kevin Van Tighem wrote articles for the Alberta Fishing Guide magazine. Barry Mitchell absolutely treasured Kevin’s articles. Each one considered so much more than focusing solely on the fish. The fish were part of the experience, the tangible result. Kevin’s writing went well beyond, sharing landscape based observations and considerations, tying our fish-focused mindsets to larger scale impacts to our fish. I know that my good friend Barry Mitchell would have been extremely proud for Kevin that he has published this book. Its value to Alberta cannot be overstated.

What’s spectacular about Kevin’s book is that it transcends – yet never leaves – the water. Kevin looks at the history, the present, and considers the future. He carries us to consider the entire watershed and the cumulation of impacts, influences, and their ramifications. The secret is that you won’t know that he’s doing it because you’ll be taken in by the beauty of the images, the knowledge behind what’s written, and an artful writing that engages you. No greater compliment can be given than to say it’s a humbling masterpiece that pauses us into countless considerations along the way.   ~ Dave Jensen, Alberta Fishing Guide Magazine.

Please read the excerpt to follow.

Heart Waters
Sources of the Bow River
by Kevin Van Tighem
photography by Brian Van Tighem
Release Date: 19/10/2015
ISBN 9781771601399
9.5 x 8.5 inches
240 pages
$40.00 (CAD)

Kevin will be hosting live engagements at the following locations:
Lundbreck, AB – Lundbreck Community Hall   11/4/2015  7:00 PM
Lethbridge, AB – University of Lethbridge    11/5/2015  7:00 PM
High River, AB – High River Museum   11/6/2015   7:00 PM
Calgary, AB – Lakeview Community Centre   11/7/2015   7:00 PM
Calgary, AB – Cardel Theatre   11/18/2015   6:30 PM
High River, AB – Rotary Club   11/19/2015   TBD
Banff, AB  – Whyte Museum   12/3/2015  7:00 PM
Calgary, AB – Pages   12/5/2015   2:00 PM

A new clearcut in upper Quirk Creek. Spray Lakes Sawmills employs progressive logging techniques to minimize harm, but clearcutting can damage watersheds by its very nature.
A new clearcut in upper Quirk Creek. Spray Lakes Sawmills employs progressive logging techniques to minimize harm, but clearcutting can damage watersheds by its very nature.

“The Bow River’s water comes almost exclusively from streams that drain the Rocky Mountains and their foothills, but its flow is diminishing. Monitoring on the South Saskatchewan River, of which the Bow is a major tributary, shows a 12 per cent decrease in the amount of natural flow over the past three-quarters of a century. The Bow and Oldman rivers are so tapped out that the Province of Alberta has denied all applications for new water licences since 2006.

Water is running low in a part of the province that supports more than a third of its population and two-thirds of all the irrigated agriculture in Canada … and whose population is projected to double within the next quarter century. Most Albertans alive today have lived through more wet years than dry, during a period of unprecedented climate stability. Few remember the devastating multi-year drought of the 1930s; fewer yet have looked at the historical record compiled by climate scientists that show longer, deeper droughts in the 1700s and 1800s. Even the historic range of climate variability threatens us with extreme droughts – but our future climate will not be the same as the past. A slowing jet stream and a warming global climate increase the threat of future droughts.

Ironically, even as we face a future of water scarcity, spring flooding is becoming more frequent, more damaging and increasingly costly to recover from. Climate models are in general agreement that more winter precipitation will fall as rain than as snow in the future, and that extreme weather events of long duration are increasingly likely. Big floods, as well as big droughts, are virtually guaranteed in this already water-short region.

Alberta’s water crisis is upon us.

A lot of people over the years have seen the crisis coming. Many have tried to figure out how to produce more water, but to do so we’d need to be able to control the weather. That’s been suggested. Grant MacEwan, a well-respected former Calgary mayor and, later, Lieutenant Governer of Alberta, used to advocate for the use of airplanes to seed clouds with silver iodide crystals, which would encourage water vapour to condense into rain. It’s a dicey and expensive business, however, trying to modify entire weather systems. Although cloud seeding is used to reduce hail damage from summer storms, nobody seriously considers it a real solution to the bigger water crisis.

In any case, there is no need for a solution, because there is no problem. Or at least if there is a problem, it’s not a lack of water. Except after the very driest of winters, far more water falls as snow and rain in the high country west of Highway 2 than we could ever need. It’s more a matter of timing.

Most of the snow in the high country melts out in May and June. Rainfall peaks in spring, too, often hastening the melt. Sometimes – as happened in 2013 – a heavy winter snowpack and a cool spring combine with heavy June rains to send most of the year’s water supply pouring down rivers over a few short days. Even in ordinary years, the Bow River’s early June flows range from three to five times greater than in midwinter, and nearly twice as high as in August.

Ghost Dam is one of several hydroelectric dams upstream from Calgary that reduce summer flows in the Bow River by storing water for winter release. Restoring more natural flow patterns could make the dams part of the water solution, rather than continuing forces of river destruction.
Ghost Dam is one of several hydroelectric dams upstream from Calgary that reduce summer flows in the Bow River by storing water for winter release. Restoring more natural flow patterns could make the dams part of the water solution, rather than continuing forces of river destruction.

So there’s plenty of water; it’s just that most of it leaves the province a month or two before it’s needed. A changing climate may increase that imbalance if, as appears likely, it increases the early-season runoff. That’s why some engineers see the solution as more dams. If we can’t squeeze more water out of the sky, they say, let’s trap it in reservoirs.

Eleven large dams already plug rivers upstream from Calgary, but they were built to produce hydropower, not to save water for irrigation, domestic use and thirsty summer streams. Hydro dams don’t increase the summer water supply; just the opposite, in fact. The Bow River at Calgary now carries less water in summer and almost twice as much in midwinter as it would under natural flow conditions because TransAlta holds back the runoff to produce electricity in winter. Little wonder that irrigation advocates and water engineers continue to pore over maps in search of good places for new dams to store water for summer use.

The Western Irrigation District weir in Calgary, and two other weirs farther downstream at Carseland and Bassano, divert water from the Bow River into canal systems that feed it to off-stream reservoirs. But the big on-stream irrigation dams are elsewhere in the South Saskatchewan drainage. The Province of Saskatchewan built the Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River in 1967. Alberta followed in 1975 with the Dickson Dam on the Red Deer, and in 1989 with the Oldman Dam. Still, those dams don’t make water; they simply hold back some of the spring runoff. In fact, leakage and evaporation from the wind-whipped reservoirs actually reduce the water supply.

Evaporation takes more water from Lake Diefenbaker, the reservoir behind the Gardiner Dam, than all its human users – even though the reservoir serves more than three-quarters of Saskatchewan’s population. Alberta’s irrigation reservoirs lose, on average, a metre of water each year. Monitoring studies on the Oldman Reservoir showed that it loses a litre of water to evaporation for every one hundred litres flowing into it.

Dams waste water. They devastate rivers, destroy native fish stocks and cost a fortune to build and maintain. And even the largest of dams hold back only a small portion of the available spring runoff.

A far more elegant solution to the water supply conundrum is simply to store the water in the headwaters landscape itself: in forests, fens, beaver meadows, soil and their underlying groundwater aquifers. That’s what the headwater landscape is: a living reservoir capable of storing far more water than any number of man-made dams ever could. And the advantage of storing water in the landscape is that it’s not just downstream water users who benefit. Everything does: trout, creeks, anglers, bears, elk, otters, songbirds, hikers, hunters, trees and waterfowl.

The solution to Alberta’s water-challenged second century is to reverse the mistakes of our first century, when pretty much everything we did in the headwaters of the Bow River reduced their capacity to produce abundant, clean water. To an objective viewer studying Alberta land use, in fact, it might look like we spent the last few decades trying to drain the high country as fast as possible rather than steward its water-holding capacity. If the landscape itself is our best and largest water reservoir, most of our land-use practices reduce its holding capacity and fill it with leaks.

It’s not like William Pearce didn’t warn us – before Alberta was even a province.

William Pearce arrived in Calgary in 1884 determined to make sure Canada didn’t mess up its west. Farther south, waves of eager Americans were fighting over water holes, shooting at the Indigenous people, laying waste to forests and overgrazing the plains. That kind of chaotic settlement was not, in Pearce’s opinion, an option for western Canada.

His opinion mattered. As the young country’s superintendent of mines for the CPR “Railway Belt,” Pearce controlled most land-use decisions west of what is now Winnipeg. Appointed by the deputy minister of the interior in faraway Ottawa, Pearce soon became known as the “Czar of the West.” He established new parks, settled land disputes, allocated mineral rights and recommended settlement and development policies.

William Pearce had spent his youth in well-watered southern Ontario. He was struck by the scarcity and small size of our western rivers, as well as their unfortunate habit of shrinking each summer, when water demand peaked. He knew that the West’s agricultural potential would be limited by the available water. It didn’t help that the 1880s had been marked by drought; if the skies couldn’t always be relied upon for water, he reasoned, the rivers must provide it.

Pearce consequently became a keen champion of irrigation development. But even as he explored the potential for dams and canals to carry water to prairie farms, he looked west to the Rocky Mountains and foothills. That was where the water came from. Nothing, he decided, could be allowed to diminish or threaten the headwaters.

Pearce helped persuade the government to set aside Rocky Mountains Park in 1885 – the world’s third national park. He went on to arrange for the rest of the forests along the edge of the Rocky Mountains to be reserved as public land in 1898. Settlement and development were prohibited. Determined to lock in protection of those headwater forests, Pearce persuaded Ottawa to enlarge the park to 12,691 square kilometres, twice its modern size, in 1902. Even when later governments shrank the park to exclude valuable natural resources and potential dam sites, they retained the deleted land in the forest reserve.

The reserve included the forested headwaters of the Oldman, Bow, Red Deer, North Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers. The Department of Interior’s 1911 report described it as a timbered area lying alongside of a prairie country hundreds of miles in extent … it forms the watershed for the river systems which water the great plains to the east where water supply is practically the only limit to anticipated settlement and development.

Real-estate speculators, cattlemen and loggers had ambitions for that land. But Pearce’s vision won. The undisturbed forests, beaver meadows, relict glaciers and deep winter snows were reserved to gather and store water from winter snow and spring rains. That way they could always be relied on to release good water in a timely way to the cold springs and creeks that feed the downstream rivers. Watershed protection trumped all.

In 1930, when the National Resources Transfer Acts gave natural resources over to the control of the prairie provinces, one of the Alberta government’s first actions was to establish its own forest service and reaffirm that the forest reserves in the headwaters of its prairie rivers were to be managed to protect water supplies. The Eastern Rockies Forest Conservation Board, during its two decades of federal–provincial collaboration, in turn made headwaters protection its top priority.

Recreational mismanagement in the headwaters: A badly gullied off-road vehicle trail increases spring runoff while drying out the water table later in summer. Worse floods; less summer water.
Recreational mismanagement in the headwaters: A badly gullied off-road vehicle trail increases spring runoff while drying out the water table later in summer. Worse floods; less summer water.

The return of Alberta’s headwaters to full provincial control seemed promising at first. A new Progressive Conservative government, led by Calgary lawyer Peter Lougheed, had won the 1971 election. Faced with competing views about the highest and best use of public land, Lougheed’s government launched a public hearing process in 1973. The following year, based on those hearings, the newly established Environmental Conservation Authority released recommendations for land use and resource development in the Eastern Slopes that, yet again, emphasized watershed values. The government responded to the recommendations by setting up a Resource Evaluation and Planning division in 1976 and issuing the landmark Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes a year later.

That policy again put watershed protection first in priority above all other uses, aggressively prescribing the kinds of activities and development permitted in each land-use zone. When provincial department heads and business lobby groups demanded fewer restrictions, the business-oriented Progressive Conservatives released a more development-friendly version of the policy in 1984. Even with new loopholes for exploitation of wood, gravel, oil, gas and other resources, the revised Eastern Slopes policy once more affirmed watershed protection as the highest policy priority.

Thirty years later, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan replaced the Eastern Slopes Policy, but not its priority for watershed health.

With so much emphasis on watershed values over most of the last century, one might expect the headwaters of our prairie rivers to be in good condition and our water future assured. One would be wrong.

For decades, resource managers have known that the key to improving the water supply from Alberta’s foothill and mountain headwaters is to enable the landscape to capture as much of each winter’s snowfall as possible and to delay the release of snowmelt and rainwater from the high country until well into the summer. Contemporary logging practices, recreational use, trapping, forest grazing allotments and hydropower dam operations, however, do just the opposite. Ironically, those land uses are all regulated by government agencies whose policy priority, for more than a century, has been to put watershed health above everything else.

They just don’t actually do it.”

Leave a Reply