From Highline Magazine Winter 2013/14, Volume 6, Issue 2
By Sarah Elmeligi
Photos by Brian Van Tighem
On June 20, 2013, Southern Alberta changed.
In a little more than 24 hours, over 200mm of rain fell. As it travelled down the mountain sides, it brought with it rocks, mud, trees and anything else that got in the way — like hot tubs, fences and even houses. Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, from the Ghost area to Waterton, were in the throes of the biggest flooding event in close to 100 years. As a local citizen in Canmore, I was struck with the impact to my local community, and my heart went out to those who were losing their homes. As a biologist, however, I instinctively began to think about the impacts to the ecosystem, and how they might be mitigated.
It became instantly apparent that what happens in the headwaters, happens even more intensely downstream. Canmore is in the headwaters of the Bow River, and the flood waters there travelled downstream to Bragg Creek where houses were washed away. Those waters continued to High River, where the entire town was submerged, and they also flowed into Calgary, drowning the downtown. It wasn’t just the Bow River either; the Oldman River was flooding from the Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek to Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat was preparing for the inevitable as the waters worked their way across the province.
This flood was intense, and it surprised many of us with its unrelenting rains and subsequent damage. But this is only the beginning. This isn’t our one in a hundred year flood; it’s our new reality. Climate change models suggest that Southern Alberta is headed for more mass flooding events due to more rainfall and more rain-on-snow events in the early spring; paradoxically, models also show an increased likelihood of droughts in the late summer.
Climate change models are scary and intimidating, whether you’re talking about water, biodiversity or temperature. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything we can do to ameliorate the situation. Models are a prediction of the future based on the present reality, but if we take steps to change the present reality, then the predictions of the future may change too. We might not be able to reduce the amount of water that falls from the sky, but we can increase the ecosystem’s resiliency and ability to ease the impacts that come with these enormous volumes of water.
Our land-use decisions directly impact a forests’ ability to alleviate impacts. Right now, we are faced with a choice — do we choose to manage our forests appropriately and ensure their maximum resiliency to soften the effects of future floods, or do we continue our current pattern of removing large swaths of forests and decreasing a forests’ ability to protect our communities from the impacts of massive natural disasters?
HEADWATERS — WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?
Headwaters are so-called because they are at the top of the whole hydrological network; they are our natural water towers and provide most of the water in an entire watershed. In Southern Alberta, our headwaters are basically the Rocky Mountains and their foothills; the water here flows from small creeks and streams to join with larger creeks and streams until it all empties in to the mighty Bow or Oldman Rivers. These rivers join to become the South Saskatchewan River, which is why we live in the South Saskatchewan Watershed. What we do in the headwaters of our backyard directly impacts other provinces and millions of people.
When we look at the behaviour of flood waters, understanding the condition of the headwaters is essential. As tributary streams join with other streams and creeks, their water volumes combine, and so does their power, velocity, force and sometimes just plain ol’ attitude. What was already a fast-moving, high-volume powerhouse of moving water in Canmore quickly became exponentially bigger and badder by the time it reached the foothills.
So how can we manage the headwaters to protect us from the impacts of these cumulative flows and the damage that comes with them? What does protecting the headwaters actually mean? The answer can be found in the woods.
HOW THE FORESTS PROTECT US
An intact forest does three things with water: soaks it up, slows it down and spreads it out. Alberta’s logging and resource extraction practices, however, have decreased the ability of our forests to do just that. The result is a forest that is not effective in reducing the impacts of massive flooding and drought. Forestry practices along the Eastern Slopes from the Ghost to the Livingstone Range have removed trees and built an intricate road network. Without trees to absorb the water and spread it out, more water travels through the system. Roads facilitate a straight path giving the water more power and force to cause more damage to our human communities. Forestry plans aren’t changing either: sensitive creeks like Todd Creek in the Livingstone, fragile wetlands like those in the Ghost, and some of our largest remaining intact forests in the Castle are slated to be cut down in the coming years.
This doesn’t mean that we have to go back to a time where we didn’t harvest resources, but it does mean that we have to plan our forestry practices differently with more environmental objectives in mind, rather than solely economics ones. Ironically, planning to meet environmental objectives will ensure the economic sustainability of the forestry industry in Southern Alberta as well.
Since the mid-1970s, scientists, conservationists, local citizens and the government have been studying the land and its ecology to work toward better protection of the Alberta headwaters. There have been a series of reports, research studies, public opinion polls and media pieces all recommending that we increase the protection of the headwaters along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. The goal is not only to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but also to protect our resources, including water quality and recreational opportunities, healthy communities, habitats for threatened species and to allow for a more diverse economy. Even though Alberta government policy does actually prioritize health of the headwaters over other uses, sadly, on-the-ground management still does not reflect that policy direction.
There is often disconnect between political decisions, public needs and science. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
THREE WAYS TO PROTECT THE HEADWATERS
Rather than looking at a forest and asking how much timber we can get out of it, we need to instead be asking how we can manage that forest to better provide us with long-term benefits.
For instance, it is possible for a forest to be logged in such a way that snow sheds are created to hold back water in the spring reducing the likelihood and impact of floods, and then to slowly release it throughout the summer in order to diminish drought.
Cut-blocks can be made to mimic natural disturbance patterns, and forestry can promote different age/class structures that enhance biodiversity. This means that the forest contains a variety of species at different ages, from saplings to old growth, which provides a variety of growth habitat for the various species. This complexity is what constitutes a healthy, vibrant forest.
Logging roads could be better constructed, and once their industrial purpose has been served, could be decommissioned in ways that restore the soils absorptive capacity.
WHY NOT DO SOMETHING?
Why don’t we do something, even when government policy says we should? There are many potential reasons, but I think the main one, and the hardest one to swallow is that we — you and I — allow it to happen. We aren’t educated about these things that affect us, and if we are, we often don’t make our voices heard. But now is the time, with the wake of this year’s flood still ringing in our ears.
The Alberta Government is going through an extensive land use planning process called the Land Use Framework. A regional plan focused on the southern third of Alberta, called the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, was publicly released on October 9, 2013.
Making sure that this plan reflects what you want for Southern Alberta is essential if you want clean water, a place to play, an opportunity to see wildlife, and a healthy forest that works to protect your community from natural disasters. When it comes to conservation, you can’t only be the change, you have to get out there and demand the change. Be the change, demand the change and don’t settle for less.
Read more from Sarah’s blog here.