Who Is My Keeper?

SG October image

If you have been away over the summer months no doubt you may be surprised at the extent of construction occurring west of Calgary on both the Elbow River and Fish Creek. Construction close to town is not all that is happening, however. A trip down the Elbow River is revealing.

You may not agree with my thoughts or my analogy; that’s OK. My intent is to provoke thought about the trickle running through the backyards of our City to the meandering blue ribbon travelling 120 km from its source in the mountains, through the foothills, across the prairies, under a dam, past homes, pathways and parks and on to Fort Calgary and the Bow River.

We begin in the headwaters where forest management agreements cover 29% of the Elbow source watershed. Oil and gas operations can be found while off-road vehicles take advantage of bush roads and seismic lines to penetrate deeper into the backcountry. These activities lead to linear fragmentation of the landscape contributing to erosion, increased rates of surface water runoff, sedimentation of rivers and creeks and easier prey access.

Moving further downstream farmland is interspersed with communities relying on groundwater-fed wells and septic fields to deal with the dirty stuff. The proliferation of ranchettes, the 2-to-5-acre homesteads, who bring their urban aesthetic to the country (manicured, herbicided, cut, irrigated green grass) plus a proposed shopping mall create a band around the western edge of Calgary – urban sprawl at its worst.

Overtop of this fragmented landscape are 2 major construction projects; the southwest ring road now underway and the likely-to-be approved Springbank Dry Dam. Both projects include filling in wetlands, channelizing and straightening the Elbow River and adding more riprap.

Once in the City, the flow of the river is managed and is but a trickle currently. Into this shallow, slow moving river 85 storm sewers unload untreated surface water runoff containing all sorts of nasty stuff into the Elbow River. Since August 2016 the Elbow River from below the Glenmore Dam to the confluence with the Bow River has been under an Alberta Health Services advisory due to bacterial contamination i.e. excessive E. Coli counts. Within the City riverbanks are replaced by riprap, stonewalls and a myriad of bioengineering projects (a mixture of hard and soft river bank protection) while more and more larger developments proceed along the River’s edge.

What is the impact of all these incursions on the Elbow River? I would like to imagine the same thing happening to my body. I go to the barber and without my permission and over time up to 29% of my hair is shaved off with a few deep nicks, here and there. The sunburnt, flaking skin, bug bites and winter cold are intolerable. Blood and raindrops dribble off my shiny pate, down my neck, into my eyes and off my nose. The intravenous I receive is contaminated which is particularly serious as my kidneys, the cleaners of my blood, are compromised. I am down to one. Thank goodness for dialysis. My broken bones are slightly offset but the offsets are so minimal that I have been assured that my athletic performance will not be affected. Oh, but my arteries are clogged. A stent and quadruple bypass appear to have solved the problem in the near term, at least. My stomach feels off and my skin so patchy I look like a Mesopotamian mosaic art piece, although not nearly as beautiful. My prognosis is not promising for a long and healthy life.

If we consider all of which is occurring in the Elbow River watershed would the prognosis be similar to the bleak outlook above? Of course, zero development, like youth-for-ever, is not realistic. But if we look at the cumulative impacts of all the completed, yet-to-be completed and proposed projects on the overall health of the Elbow watershed and its river ecosystem would our actions be different? Would our focus be broader and more long-term? Would we have more respect? I would like to think so. We should be honouring the watershed and the river that provides almost half of Calgary with its drinking water. After all, without water we all perish.