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Environment File

A team of scientists worked with some local students this week as part of a massive new study of the Sturgeon River.

A team of scientists worked with some local students this week as part of a massive new study of the Sturgeon River.

Researchers from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) did some water quality tests with Leo Nickerson Elementary School students on the Sturgeon near St. Albert Place Friday afternoon. The 23 Grade 5 students tested the water’s chemistry, examined bugs and plants, and scoped out the local waterfowl.

The “wetland boot camp” was part of the Sturgeon River Watershed Project now in progress at NAIT, says Laurie Hunt, St. Albert resident and the biologist running the project. The multi-year study, which started this May, will monitor water quality and sedimentation at 120 stream crossings and 40 permanent sample sites throughout the Sturgeon watershed.

Human structures such as culverts can cause erosion and sediment build-up, Hunt says, fragmenting habitat and blocking fish movement. Her team hopes to track the source of sediment throughout the watershed and suggest ways to reduce erosion.

The team also wants to draw groups together to take care of the Sturgeon, Hunt says, so a lot of its work involves public education. Friday’s teaching session fits well with the Grade 5 unit on wetlands.

NAIT staff will be collecting data on the river until August for analysis this fall, Hunt says.

Mountain pine beetles might be taking a bite out of Alberta’s water supply, say Edmonton scientists.

Uldis Silins and Ellen Macdonald of the University of Alberta are about half way through their three-year study on the effects of mountain pine beetle on water runoff, and released their preliminary findings this week.

Most of Alberta’s water comes from runoff flowing down the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, says Silins, a professor of forest hydrology, which is the same region now being ravaged by the mountain pine beetle. He and Macdonald wanted to find out how beetle-killed forests would affect Alberta’s rivers.

Silins and his team have simulated beetle-kills near Hinton by injecting several thousand mature lodgepole pine trees with herbicide. “By this spring, they’re already showing signs of reddening,” he says, just as they would during an actual beetle attack.

Unlike a forest fire, he explains, mountain pine beetles kill trees but leave them standing, delaying their effect on runoff. Their research suggests healthy forests normally use almost all of the rain that falls on them during the growing season, reducing early spring runoff, and shelter snowpack under their branches, causing it to melt later in the year.

A beetle-killed forest could therefore mean more runoff and snowmelt in early spring, he predicts, meaning more water when we don’t need it and less when we do. It could also mean more runoff and nutrient leaching, encouraging algal blooms and making it more difficult to treat.

Further research will confirm the effects of tree deaths on water supply and how best to replant beetle-killed forests. This study should be useful to parts of B.C. and Colorado already hit hard by the bug, Silins says. “We should be thinking very hard about what kinds of forest we want to re-grow after this kind of attack.”