Categories: Environment

Our river of history

FLOW OF HISTORY – The Sturgeon River looking west toward the train trestle in St. Albert

The Sturgeon runs through the lives of every St. Albert resident. Roger Belley is no exception.

The river was his playground growing up in the 1960s, says the former city resident. He’d swim in it in the summer or toss little plank boats in it and race them to the Perron Street Bridge. In the winter, it became a giant skating rink, one that it was his pleasure to clear and flood from St. Albert Trail to the trestle bridge as a city employee.

“Some Sundays there was 500 people on the ice,” Belley recalls.

But times changed. By the mid-1980s, road salt made the ice too thin to surface in the winter, bringing an end to its use as a rink. The swimmers disappeared, replaced by weeds so thick you could almost walk across them.

He recalls how at one point, on city council’s orders, he helped clear-cut all the “weeds” along the river’s shore, right down to its edge. There wasn’t a bird in sight in the region afterwards, and trash was free to tumble into the water.

“It just made me sick to my stomach.”

The Sturgeon River is the ribbon that binds St. Albert’s history together. It unites us and divides us, and was the focus of the greatest political struggle this city has seen in 30 years. Now, new research suggests that we may lose this link to the past unless we come together to protect it.

The giving river

As implied by previous entries in this series, St. Albert would not exist without the Sturgeon. It was the fish and transportation it offered that drew fur traders and First Nations to this region, and its fertile banks that made it an ideal spot for Father Lacombe’s new mission. Its thick forests provided the wood for Lacombe’s chapel in 1861, and its muddy banks gave Lacombe the impetus to rally the community to build the region’s first bridge in 1862.

The river provided fish, transportation, and water for St. Albert’s people, crops and animals, notes Black Robe’s Vision. Residents would saw ice chunks from it for refrigeration, build dams across it to power mills, and, in 1878, ride a steamboat up and down it.

The river was a major source of recreation, Black Robe’s Vision notes. The Edmonton Canoe Club set up shop west of the trestle bridge to sail its waters, no doubt joined on occasion by Fleuri Perron’s Ste. ThÈrésa paddle-boat. Residents would swim and skate together on it during the Great Depression, often using willow branches for sticks, cow-pies for pucks and old catalogues for pads.

Ecological limits reached

But all this use had consequence.

“By about the early 1900s, people are noting that the river is no longer what it used to be,” says Vino Vipulanantharajah, archivist with the Musée Héritage Museum.

It’s easy to tell why from photos of the time, says Leah Kongsrude, the city’s environment director. Residents cleared land right down to the riverbank, destroying protective riparian vegetation, and watered cattle right in the river, eroding its banks. There was a slaughterhouse built over the river that is said to have tossed guts into it, and a dump that was practically in the river itself.

By 1919, fish populations had plummeted due to poor water conditions, and the provincial medical officer was objecting to residents using the Sturgeon for drinking water, Black Robe’s Vision reports. Town council wrote to the federal government to get cash to clean up the river, although it’s unclear if this actually happened, Vipulanantharajah says.

St. Albert’s next major impact on the Sturgeon came in 1954. Having grown too big to rely on outhouses, town council dug three sewage lagoons in Riel Park where the soccer and rugby fields are today to treat their waste – part of the town’s first formal water and sewage system, Black Robe’s Vision reports.

The ponds used bacteria to break down the worst of the sewage, Kongsrude says. Each spring, town officials would drain the lagoons straight into the Sturgeon, dumping bacteria, fertilizers and other contaminants into it.

“The whole town was downstream of this,” she notes, and these pollutants would have contributed to algal blooms and eutrophication each spring.

A “deadly stench” would blow off of these lagoons whenever the wind blew in from the west, notes historian and former mayor Richard Plain. Communities such as Spruce Grove also had lagoons, and sewage from them would go right into Atim Creek and Big Lake.

Worsening this impact on the river was government policy that encouraged farmers to farm right to the edge of Big Lake, says Coun. Bob Russell. This policy (meant to support cash-strapped farmers) ruined the lake’s protective shoreline vegetation and brought manure and fertilizer right to the river.

But the 1960s also saw the start of the global environmental movement. Russell recalls being appalled by the sight of a dump so close to Big Lake, and says he and residents such as Jim Starko started raising concerns about pollution.

“People started speaking up and saying, ‘This was wrong.'”

The town phased out its sewage lagoons around 1976, likely due to the fact that homes were fast encroaching upon it. Two of the lagoons became dumps that decades later would create concerns about leachate pollution. The third is now called Riel Pond, which, on April 30, 2010, was treated with the pesticide Rotenone to prevent invasive threespine stickleback in it from invading the Sturgeon.

Road rage

The Sturgeon River and Big Lake were in poor condition by the 1980s, says Fin Fairfield, founder of the Big Lake Environment Support Society.

“It wasn’t really highly regarded in any way.”

Concerned for the lake’s future, Fairfield and about 23 others (including Belley) founded BLESS in 1991. The group held fundraising events and built a shelter and viewing platform to introduce Big Lake to a wider audience. In 1999, BLESS members started a public river cleanup that celebrated its 20th iteration this year. The group’s lobbying efforts got the lake protected as a conservation natural area in 2002 and incorporated into Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park in 2005.

Before that, the group would be a central player in one of St. Albert’s longest and nastiest political battles: the debate over the west regional road over the Sturgeon.

The idea for the road came up in the 1960s but wasn’t taken up by city council until the 1990s when city manager Norbert Van Wyk said the city’s population had grown enough to justify building it, says former mayor Paul Chalifoux.

Opposition from BLESS and other environmentalists was fierce, with over 400 people filling council chambers and the St. Albert Place lobby for the final vote on April 21, 1997, the Gazette archives report. It was a raucous affair, with so much cheering and booing that then-mayor Anita Ratchinsky threatened to clear the gallery.

When council approved the bypass in a 4-3 vote, environmentalists rallied in defence of the Sturgeon. Supported by BLESS and over a hundred volunteers, residents Elke Blodgett and Klaus Nenn collected some 10,125 signatures on a petition calling on the city to come up with an alternative route.

“People lined up to sign it,” Blodgett says, who laughs as she recalls how a city official tried to sic the cops on her when she was collecting signatures.

“I could not believe anyone would want to destroy a beautiful, clear lake for the sake of a road that was not needed.”

The opposition convinced council to shelve the road until it revised its municipal development plan, Chalifoux said. By the early 2000s, council had endorsed a new route further east of Big Lake that ran through the Riel Industrial Park.

The business community was furious, and launched a massive advertising campaign through the group Sensible Choice – one that was later ruled to have violated the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards for presenting misleading and inaccurate information.

The road became the central issue in the 2001 municipal election. On one side was mayoral challenger Plain and business owners, who favoured the original route. On the other was incumbent Chalifoux and environmentalists, who feared that the road’s pilings would cause leachate from the old sewage lagoons to seep into the Sturgeon.

Plain and his supporters won, but BLESS and environmentalists such as Blodgett put up fierce resistance. Their actions led to an Environment Canada investigation over the leachate issue and an extensive environmental assessment of the bypass, one that would result in the city spending what Kongsrude estimates was about $15 million to cap the old sewage lagoons with clay.

What is now Ray Gibbon Drive would finally open across the Sturgeon on Oct. 3, 2007, after 10 city councils and what Plain described as the most “vitriolic” debate in city history. Debate on its expansion and monitoring of its environmental impact continue to this day.

History dries up?

Recent research by the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) confirms what many residents have observed anecdotally: that the Sturgeon’s health is in decline.

“The analysis of annual trends across the basin indicates a decline in flows by 40 to 60 per cent, particularly from the 1990s to the present,” a report released by the group this April finds.

While climate change was a factor, the report found that humans, in the form of land use changes and water withdrawals, were likely the main reason for this decline.

Urban areas have grown to cover 13 per cent of the watershed compared to just one per cent in 1966, reducing groundwater recharge, increasing flooding, and adding more silt and contaminants to the river. Water users currently take about 123 per cent of the Sturgeon’s long-term average flow in July – likely an unsustainable amount.

The 2012 State of the Sturgeon River Report similarly finds that the river’s condition was in only “fair” condition by most measures, and “poor” in terms of its fish, vegetation, and phosphorous levels.

The Sturgeon has been around for well over 150 years. Will it still be here for Canada’s 300th anniversary?

Residents are rallying to make sure it is.

City crews and developers now build stormwater ponds and grit interceptors to keep pollutants out of the river. Residents scour the river’s shores for trash, and plant trees along it through the River Edge Enhancement Project. Students and scientists perform experiments to study its health, while politicians debate conservation plans for it.

While he hears many sad stories of the river’s decay, Belley, for his part, says the many people working towards its conservation gives him hope.

“I love that freakin’ river!” he says, and he frequently returns to visit it from his new home in North Saanich, B.C.

Many people comment on the beautiful view he has there, he notes.

“My comment is, ‘It’s not the Sturgeon River, but it’s still nice.'”

Links to the past

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette has examined one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month since July 2016. This wraps up the series.

Watch for a special collected edition of Links to the Past next month!

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.

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