The state of the Sturgeon: The details
What does 'fair' mean? Visit the online version of this article at www.stalbertgazette.com for a gallery that explores the 15 different indicators that contributed to the Sturgeon's 'fair' ranking.
It's a beautiful day on the Sturgeon River: Blue skies, green grass and, for once, clear water. The shores bustle with activity as some 360 St. Albert residents turn out to plant trees and make the river a better place.
Nicholas Batchelor is one of them. As front man for the River Edge Enhancement Project (REEP), he's a whirlwind of activity at this Mother's Day event, hauling water, planting trees and digging dirt.
Like many of the people here today, Batchelor has a keen interest in the state of the Sturgeon, and is frustrated with its on-going degradation.
"For some reason, governments think that the health of the river is discretionary," he says, citing the slow pace of the city's grit interceptor program as an example. "How many more tonnes of grit have gone into the water because of that postponement?"
Batchelor is one of many local residents doing everything they can to help save the Sturgeon. This week, they got a big boost from the city with the release of the Sturgeon River State of the Watershed Report. The 180-page document is the most comprehensive look at the river yet, and should help guide the region's efforts to improve the watershed.
Our big footprint
City environmental manager Leah Jackson flips through the final draft of the report in her office at the Jack Kraft Facility. It took more than two years to complete, she says, and cites some 500 different studies.
"The report made more questions for me than answers, actually."
The report is meant to be a snapshot of the river's current condition, Jackson says, identifying its major problems and potential solutions.
"It's not just about water. It's also about land use and ecological integrity."
The Sturgeon watershed covers about 3,300 square kilometres through four counties, according to the report. The Sturgeon itself starts at Hoople Lake near Entwistle and runs about 260 kilometres east to the North Saskatchewan.
Humans have had an immense impact on the Sturgeon, according to the report. Based on about 15 indicators (details within photo gallery above), the report found that the watershed as a whole was in 'fair' condition (on a scale of poor, fair and good), particularly in terms of land use. Farms, roads, pipelines and cities now cover 80 per cent of the region's surface, with forests and waterways squeezed into the remainder.
Settlers started the trend centuries ago by clearing shores and draining wetlands for farms, roads and homes, Jackson notes.
"There are very few natural areas or wetlands left," she says, and little in the way of native vegetation. Farmers now pour fertilizer on about twice as much land today than they did in 1970, the report suggests, while communities wash pesticides, salt, grit and sewage into the river.
This pollution has helped push the Sturgeon's phosphorous levels way above provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life, the report found — eight to 10 times above at some spots along the river — contributing to algal blooms that kill fish and accelerate infilling.
The state of the Sturgeon: The details
What does the rating "fair" mean? Scroll through the photo gallery at the top, which explores the 15 different indicators that contributed to the Sturgeon's fair ranking.
How to fix it
The Sturgeon isn't the first watershed to face these challenges. Robert Gibbs says he's seen many of the same problems at Pigeon Lake in recent years.
Pigeon Lake is a watershed that has about twice as much land as it does lake, Gibbs says.
"Once nutrients get into that lake, they take forever to get out."
Intense urbanization and agriculture since the 1950s have chopped up its riparian zones and poured on the phosphorous-heavy fertilizers, causing thick, stinky, iridescent and poisonous blue-green algae blooms to cover its surface. "It's completely disgusting."
After a huge bloom killed fish and closed beaches in 2006, the region rallied together to form the Pigeon Lake Watershed Association, of which Gibbs is a board member. The group brings together representatives from 10 municipalities, 10 summer villages, the province and numerous civilian groups to try to keep the blooms from coming back.
"Phosphorous is capable of generating 500 times its mass in blue-green algae," Gibbs says, and the most cost-effective way to prevent algal blooms is to keep phosphorous out of the water. That means protecting and restoring riparian zones.
The Pigeon Lake group promotes best management practices for sewage systems and lawn care throughout its basin, Gibbs says, encouraging cottagers to use less fertilizer and leave shoreline plants standing. They offer free site assessments by biologists to teach residents how to better protect the lake, organize shoreline re-plantings, and advocate for the lake during development applications.
Some communities in the region have gone even further. Sundance and Itaska Beach have completely banned the use of fertilizer, for example, while Argentia Beach has used a land conservancy to protect a large peatland near the lake from development.
Gibbs is now heading up development of a watershed management plan that will codify these best practices and guide community development. It'll be up to individual municipalities to implement them, but he hopes peer pressure will get the job done.
"You can't legislate change," he argues. "You have to educate."
These steps might sound pretty familiar to fans of the Sturgeon. Groups like REEP are already restoring parts of the riparian zone along the Sturgeon, for example, and St. Albert has zoned a 50-metre wide buffer strip along Carrot Creek for protection.
And there's scientific support: researchers with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology's Sturgeon River group are now addressing almost all the data gaps identified in the state of the watershed report.
What's missing, argues David Trew, executive director of the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, is leadership. We already know what to do to fix the Sturgeon from a scientific perspective, he says.
"The critical question is who is going to do it and under what mandate."
The Sturgeon once had a watershed group — the Sturgeon River Watershed Initiative (SRWI) — but it collapsed in 2009 after barely a year in operation. Members blamed its collapse on clashing goals and poor leadership.
But a watershed-level organization is essential to manage the Sturgeon, Trew says. Rivers cross political boundaries and so must their managers.
The state of the watershed report has 15 recommendations, and Recommendation No. 1 is the immediate creation of a Sturgeon watershed group.
"An organization such as the SRWI is critical in sustaining, enhancing and managing the Sturgeon River Watershed in a collaborative and environmental manner," reads the report's final draft, and it may be "prudent" for the City of St. Albert to try to create a similar one.
The key is to have such a group be municipally led, Trew says. It's land use that affects water pollution, and it's municipalities that control land use.
That group would have to have strong community support to succeed, Batchelor adds. Events like REEP plantings are a success because they draw together citizens, businesses and interest groups — not just governments — teaching people to invest in their waterways and commit to their protection.
"If we are to be successful in our long-term planning, we need to have the true community involved."
Improving the state of the Sturgeon won't be a simple task, Jackson says, and won't happen overnight.
"It took us 100 years to get our river like this. It will take a long time to get any improvement in it."
Visit http://www.stalbertgazette.com/pdf/SAG/State_of_the_sturgeon.pdf to download a summary of the state of the watershed report.