Celebrate our vast, complex, interconnected, beautiful environment

For the past 45 years, Canadians have marked the week of June 5 as Environment Week and taken the opportunity to talk about being green – but why do we do it?


Our environment isn’t just the air we breathe and the water we drink, it’s the plankton that provide oxygen, it’s the bats that reduce pest species, and it’s the worms that make the soil more fertile. It’s a complex web of relationships between all the life with which we share the planet Continue reading

Alberta’s watersheds – going right to the source


Albertans don’t always think about the water they drink, play in and rely on every day – it is often taken for granted. So where does that clean water that flows out of the tap when you turn it on come from? It depends entirely on where you live in the province! Continue reading

Water logging – the life of a limnologist

At Alberta and Environment and Sustainable Resources, we love the opportunity to celebrate our environment. This week is National Water Week and as we reflect we wanted to highlight one of the amazing water-focused jobs we have right here in Alberta, the job of a limnologist.

What is a limnologist?

It’s a question that may not come up at most people’s dinner tables. A limnologist is a person who studies fresh, inland water including lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. The focus of their studies is generally water quality and the movement of water and aquatic life.

What does a limnologist do?

Monitoring water quality and health is the core work of a limnologist. They provide scientific and technical expertise in water quality management and often work closely with the Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils to help them move toward their water management plan.

Part of being a limnologist is striving to work with the Water for Life strategy which encompasses safe, secure drinking water, healthy aquatic ecosystems and reliable water quality supplies for a sustainable economy. They also work with approvals which involves reviewing Water Act applications.

How do they work with stakeholders?

The government has five regional limnologists throughout the province. Because water is a complex thing to manage, limnologists work closely with the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency, the Alberta Energy Regulator, hydrologists and groundwater specialists to make sure they have the best possible understanding of one of our province’s most precious resources.

According to one of the department limnologists, Jana Tondu, the best part of her job is, “The satisfaction of being able to protect something that is vital to all life.”

A limnologist is just one of the many people that are working to ensure a healthy, secure and sustainable water supply for Albertans. Please visit the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development website for more information on what government is doing for our water resources.

Understanding environmental monitoring: what are limits, triggers, and management frameworks?

If you were reading along with the summaries for our North Saskatchewan regional planning sessions, you probably saw certain terms come up over and over again. One of these was the idea of environmental management frameworks. These came up in almost every discussion – but what are they, and why do we need them?

When we put together a regional plan, one of our goals is to manage the environmental impacts of industry, development, and other activities. Comprehensive monitoring is a key part of this – but until we interpret them, monitoring results are just raw data.

Environmental management frameworks help us set goals, and these give our monitoring results meaning. If levels of a certain pollutant increase, the objectives we have set will help us interpret what that means for our environment and for human health, and what kind of action we need to take. Continue reading

Know the risks: understanding flood advisories, watches and warnings

If you are in an area with a flood watch or warning, you should monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts and your local municipality website, radio station, or Twitter handle for updates.

Alberta’s river forecasting system has three main alert levels. Understand what each level means and the steps you can take to stay safe.


What they mean: stream levels are rising or are expected to rise rapidly. No major flooding is expected but minor flooding in low-lying areas is possible.

What you should do:

  • Use caution around riverbanks and water bodies.
  • Monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts for updates – depending on how the weather changes and other conditions, the advisory may end or it may be upgraded to a flood watch. You can also download the Emergency Alerts app and the Alberta Rivers app (currently for Android only) to get advisory info sent directly to your phone.
  • Make sure you have taken steps for general flood preparedness. If possible, put together a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit, if you don’t already have one.


What they mean: stream levels are rising and will approach or exceed the bank. Flooding of adjacent areas may occur.

What you should do:

  • Stay out of affected water bodies and avoid riverbanks – water levels can rise quickly.
  • Monitor Alberta Emergency Alerts and updates from your local municipality. Although a flood watch does not necessarily mean flooding will occur, it should be taken seriously. Depending on the situation, your local government may recommend steps you can take to minimize damage from high water levels.


What they mean: rising stream levels will result in flooding of adjacent areas. There is a high likelihood that overland flooding will occur.

What you should do:

  • Avoid riverbanks. Do not attempt to cross or drive over flowing water – floodwaters can erode roads and make the ground slippery. As little as 15 cm of moving water can knock you off your feet
  • Take steps to prepare your home for a flood. These may include:
  • Securing your emergency preparedness and/or evacuation kits
  • Turning off electrical and gas appliances
  • Moving furniture in your home to higher levels
  • Storing extra water in clear containers and stocking up on non-perishable food
  • Filling your vehicle’s tank with gas
  • Making sure you can easily exit your home in case of evacuation
  • Monitor updates from your local municipality. If evacuation is recommended or required, leave the area immediately following the instructions you are given.


Getting Ready for Flooding (This PDF has steps for making a flood plan, putting together an emergency preparedness kit, preparing your house for flooding, and safe evacuation)


Did Canada Water Week ‘wet’ your appetite for advocacy? Check out Alberta’s WPACs

We’re coming up to the end of another Canada Water Week – and getting ready to celebrate World Water Day tomorrow. (The weather’s even getting in the spirit by blanketing most of the province with rain and slush!)

This year’s Canadian water celebrations brought us back to basics: the 2014 theme is ‘watersheds’.

Wonderful watersheds

What are watersheds? Simply put, they are areas of land where all surface and ground water drains into the same place. Streams, lakes, and oceans are all examples of watersheds.

But they’re more than that. They’re places where all living things share a common water course, and that impacts behavior – and ultimately, forms communities.

Photo of a boy splashing in water.

How we access water affects how we build communities – and how we live our lives.

Although our need for water is universal, our experience with water is often incredibly local. Every community has a different relationship with water based on its own needs, and external factors. Heavily populated areas are often more concerned about water supply, while those in areas with lots of industry might be more concerned with monitoring.

To solve local problems, you need local knowledge. That’s where Alberta’s Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) come in.

There are 11 WPACs across Alberta. They are independent and non-profit. Each council is in charge of monitoring one of Alberta’s 11 main watersheds; identifying issues with water quantity, quality, and use; and then creating plans to address those issues.

Check out the map below to find your WPAC (click to enlarge it): Map of Alberta's 11 WPAC regions.

We at ESRD wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the amazing work of Alberta’s WPACs – and all the amazing Albertans who help run them. So if one week a year just isn’t enough to quench your thirst for all things water, why not consider getting involved? Lots of volunteer opportunities are usually available – from spending one day working on a cool project, all the way up to volunteering for the board of directors.

Intrigued? Once you’ve figured out which WPAC is yours, click on its name to head straight to the website. Or, check out this handy Twitter list of all Alberta’s WPACs – and some other great water resources.

Q and A: What’s the deal with algae blooms?

Photo of an algal bloom on a lagoon in North Carolina.

Algae blooms often look like ‘scum’ on the surface of the water. Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev

Every year, we receive a lot of questions about the huge ‘blooms’ of algae that suddenly pop up on Alberta’s lakes – and it’s easy to understand the confusion. Sudden advisories can make it seem like affected lakes have been invaded by foreign creatures – but that’s actually not the case at all.

 Blue-green algae are naturally occurring in Alberta’s lakes – but they normally pop up in manageable quantities. When the population of blue-green algae in the water explodes – what we call an algal bloom – risk levels can rise for both humans and animals. When this happens, the government of Alberta’s water and beach monitoring programs kick in.

Why are algal blooms dangerous?

 Many types of blue-green algae produce substances that irritate the skin; some produce toxins that can make people and pets sick or fatally ill when swallowed. In small amounts, these substances are pretty harmless – but during blooms, they are present in much higher concentrations and pose a much greater risk.

Why do blooms only happen at certain times or in certain places?

 Blue-green algae can grow and reproduce extremely quickly. When conditions are ideal – meaning warm water temperatures, good water quality, and high phosphorous and nutrient levels – algae populations can explode, leading to blooms.

What makes blooms go away?

 Lakes are dynamic environments, where climate, nutrient, and water quality are constantly changing. When conditions become less favourable, blooms can stop growing and eventually disappear.

Can we do anything to get rid of blooms once they appear or minimize the risk they’ll occur?

Nutrient levels play a big role in determining rates of algae growth, and these nutrients come from lots of sources – including fertilizer, wastewater, and other products of human activity. Avoiding the use of fertilizer and keeping private sewer systems in good working order helps keep blooms from growing.

Photo of a dog swimming through a blue-green algae bloom

Toxins produced by blue-green algae blooms can harm animals as well as people – keep pets out of the water. Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev

What’s the impact of algal blooms on animals? 

Toxins produced by blue-green algae can harm animals as well as humans. Until the advisory is lifted, pets should not swim in or drink affected water, and Albertans may want to limit consumption of fish caught in these waters.

I see a ‘scum’ on the surface of a lake – how do I know if it’s an algal bloom?

 Blue-green algae often look like scum floating on the surface of a lake. The algae might look blue, green, or brown, and may produce a musty earth or grassy odor. But sight and smell won’t necessarily tell you if algae is dangerous. The bottom line: treat all blooms with caution, check advisories often, and stay informed – better safe than sorry.

 What should I do if I see a bloom that hasn’t been reported yet?

Contact your regional health advisory – they can investigate whether the bloom is dangerous and issue an appropriate advisory.

Calgary’s Harvie Passage is closed for flood repairs

* Update: dropping river levels have now made the passage even more dangerous, with potential for one section to act as a ‘drowning machine’ just like the original Calgary Weir. Click here to read more.

This summer, we’ve seen the city of Calgary come together and recover from June’s flooding in ways that are truly remarkable. But getting everything back to normal will take time and work – and patience.

Harvie Passage – a section of the Bow River’s Calgary Weir that is commonly used for summer kayaking and boating – was seriously damaged by the flooding. Now that we’ve had an opportunity to do a full damage assessment, we know that exposed pipes, gravel deposits, loose rocks and other damage have made the passage fundamentally unsafe to use. The passage is now closed until repairs have been completed.

Photo of Harvie Passage impacted by rising flood waters in June 2013

Harvey Passage as the waters began to rise in June – they would get a lot higher before receding

This Saturday, crews from ESRD and the Calgary Fire Department will install a safety boom barrier upstream from the passage. The boom will restrict access to the passage and warn boaters of the danger before conditions become unsafe.

Although water levels have receded and the passage might look calm and even fun, it’s not. Water in the passage is fast-moving and turbulent – even under ideal conditions, it’s only safe for very experienced boaters, and with the presence of exposed obstacles and debris, it’s not safe for anyone. Please stay off the water – gambling your safety for a quick thrill just isn’t worth it.

Harvie Passage will re-open once repairs have been completed – you can bookmark our closures webpage for updates or check back here for the latest news.

Check out the first few seconds of this video to see how turbulent the Harvie Passage can be – even when conditions are ideal:

Alberta flood hazard studies: what changes after a flood?

When flooding strikes, water levels can change drastically in just hours or even minutes. Given this volatility, you might wonder: does the information we use to map flood hazards change constantly as well?

Flood hazard area diagram

Flood hazard studies give us visual information about floodways and flood fringes

What are flood hazard studies?

Flood hazard studies are long-term planning tools. They synthesize a lot of different information to help us forecast how the landscape around water bodies may be impacted by flooding, and assist surrounding communities with appropriate development.

Hazard studies use water level data that has a 1% chance of occurring annually (that’s why you might have heard a lot recently about “one in 100 year flooding).

Hazard studies are location specific. They focus on a single river, but may also include data on smaller rivers within the area being studied.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting – what’s the relationship?

Our river forecasters use current water level data from monitoring stations to forecast rising and falling river levels. In contrast, flood hazard studies incorporate data about both a river and the surrounding topography.

Flood hazard studies and river forecasting work together to help us determine flood risk. Whereas forecasting helps us anticipate potential water levels, flood hazard studies help us anticipate the effect a flood might have on flood hazard areas of the surrounding landscape.

When are they updated? FloodHazardArea-Diagram1-PLAN

Water levels change all the time, and river forecast information is updated continuously. But because topographical information tends to remain pretty constant, flood hazard studies are relevant for long periods of time – there’s typically no need to update them unless the river or the landscape surrounding it changes significantly.

Of course, such change is possible. One major reason for this is new development around water bodies. If a new bridge is built to cross a river, for example, this might have an impact on the area’s flood hazard map. In a case like this, ESRD would be alerted of the changing conditions, and part or all of the hazard study area would be reviewed as necessary.

We’ve been producing flood hazard studies in Alberta since the 1970s – but many of the studies we currently use were produced in the 1990s as part of the Canada-Alberta Flood Damage Reduction Program. To supplement these studies, ESRD continues to produce studies through our Flood Hazard Identification Program. All of our studies are searchable by community, stream, and basin.

What happens now?

After a major flood, the province collects extensive information about the extent of the flood in order to evaluate flood hazard studies that have been impacted. We want our evaluation to reflect the best possible understanding of what has happened – ground and aerial surveys, river flow information, and other data may all be used to enhance this understanding. This process helps us learn from what has happened – so that we can be as ready for the future as possible.

Beyond the Bow: building community-based watershed stewardship in the Calgary region

 This post is part of a series of profiles for ESRD’s Land Trust Grant program. You can read other posts in the series here and click here to apply for a 2013 grant. 

Photo of a small island in the middle of the Bow river

The Bow’s Legacy Island in fall 2012

Although it’s easy to think of Alberta as one continuous mass, it’s not that simple: different parts of the landscape have drastically different ecosystems and face different needs.

Riparian areas – riverbanks and other areas where the land meets the water – are a great example of this. These areas support tons of life – and consequently, they are some of the most vulnerable to change, damage, and human activity.

To thrive, riparian areas in inhabited or heavily used areas require careful stewardship. The land is a shared resource and this stewardship is a shared responsibility – but taking action can be easier said than done. The solution? Provide landowners, recreational users, and the public with the information and tools they need to make a difference in these areas – which is exactly what Western Sky Land Trust is doing with its Bow & Beyond Initiative.

Started in 2010, the program has brought together landowners all along the Bow River to build and support community-based water stewardship projects. Their efforts include:

  • Conserving and restoring natural areas, in partnership with private landowners;
  • partnering with stakeholders to increase public awareness of the importance of the Bow River, and watershed conservation in general; and
  • spearheading community-based watershed stewardship activities that achieve conservation goals while continuing to provide Albertans with opportunities for recreation and enjoyment.

Three grants from ESRD’s land trust grant program have helped support this work – and the fantastic results have complemented Western Sky’s other projects, like the Bow & Beyond Riparian Health Initiative, which provides landowners with detailed riparian health assessments for their properties.

Photo of Legacy Island submerged by flooding in June 2013

Legacy Island, flooded – June 21 2013

As you can imagine, the impact of recent flooding on Western Sky’s projects has been intense – and in the aftermath, it’s only going to be more important. In the words of Jerry Brunen, Western Sky’s executive director:

“our conservation goals at Western Sky remain the same. However, the flood highlights and reinforces the importance of wise stewardship and sound management of our watersheds.”

In other words, the Bow & Beyond initiative will keep going and going – and if you want to get involved, now’s a great time to start! You can check out Western Sky’s volunteer information here.

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Check out this slideshow to see how key Bow & Beyond conservation areas were affected by the southern Alberta floods.