The Bow River basin covers two percent of Alberta’s land base but is home to more than one-third of its population.
That population could double to more than two million people within 25 years, placing more stress on the ecosystem from the headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the Saskatchewan border.
Water use and water quality are already contentious issues with phosphorus runoff becoming a priority issue.
The Bow River Phosphorous Plan grew out of concerns going back 40 years, when high nutrient levels resulted in excessive aquatic plant growth. Oxygen levels decreased and fish and other aquatic life died.
In response, cities installed better water treatment plants and municipalities improved their lagoon systems, but more needs to be done to ensure surface water quality is maintained or improved.
“Things are manageable today, but we are protecting the future,” Rob Simieritsch of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development told the recent Bow River Watershed Alliance meeting in Calgary.
“We are in a good state today, but with the pressures that are coming down the road, we need to be aware of that,” he said.
The voluntary Bow River phosphorus management plan has been working for two years to define the issue and recommend strategies and actions to manage phosphorus in the basin.
The plan includes volunteers from the rural and urban sectors and forestry, agriculture and First Nations groups who use the river and its tributaries.
A steering committee was formed to make recommendations on what needs to be done. Much of the work focuses on public education.
Projects may also restore riparian areas and wetlands, which can act as water quality filters and prevent erosion, and work with municipalities on improved sewage and storm water treatment.
The plan fits with the province’s Water for Life strategy to promote healthy drinking water and aquatic systems.
Water quality is also being incorporated into the land use framework strategy, and every regional plan will include water management.
“Water quality is a reflection of what is happening on the land, whether it is big cities or the headwaters,” said Ron Axelson, who leads Alberta’s intensive livestock working group.
The agriculture sector has been debating the issue for more than 10 years, since the Alberta government studied the impacts of agriculture and phosphorus runoff.
As members of the Bow River plan, the working group has offered to set up pilot projects to reduce phosphorus levels at Acme Creek and Tindastoll Creek near Penhold.
Five producers in each sub-basin will work on management practices to reduce phosphorus runoff. These practices are over and above what the provincial Agricultural Operation Practices Act requires.
The first step is base line monitoring to determine current phosphorus levels.
New practices, such as moving cattle wintering sites or building catchments, will eventually be introduced.
“It is a pretty ambitious project. What we want is to add more producers over time because community co-operation is needed,” said Axelson.
The changes may not be noticed for some time.
“Even if you bring about practice change on the land, there is usually a significant lag time for those practices to show up in improved water quality,” he said.
Agriculture isn’t expected to expand as rapidly as the human population, but the working groups have agreed everyone is part of the problem so all must accept responsibility.
Agriculture probably contributes 10 percent of the phosphorus to the water system.