Taking aim at indifference

The Bow River courses from the Wapta Icefield in the Rocky Mountains, through the heart of downtown Calgary and on into the semi-arid agricultural districts of southeastern Alberta. Supplying billions of cubic metres of fresh water annually for municipal and industrial users, as well as water treatment and mass irrigation systems, the Bow is the most altered and dammed river in Alberta. Yet the 1.12 million people living within the river’s watershed hardly give it a second thought.

A trio of adventurers are hoping to change that by embarking on the Big Bow Float–a 657 kilometre canoe and portage trip from the height of the Wapta Icefield down the entire length of the Bow. Their message: Albertans need to stop taking water for granted.

“This is not about the Bow River exclusively,” said Danielle Droitsch, head of the Bow Riverkeeper organization, during a short break from paddling. “It’s a larger issue about water management in Alberta.”

Enjoying a much deserved lunch break on the mud banks of the Bow in southeast Calgary, the Big Bow Floaters: Droitsch, outdoorsman Don Van Hout, and environmentalist Jim Kievit, admit their month-long journey is an adventure, but hope people take an interest in more than just the trip itself. To that end a documentary film is in the works and the canoe journey will be followed by a 10-month public outreach campaign.

“Every single person has a responsibility,” said Droitsch, noting toilets, dishwashers and irresponsible domestic water usage can have a significant impact on the river. Lawns are another culprit, she said, adding lawn irrigation is done for cosmetic reasons at the expense of the river.

Droitsch stressed personal water consumption is only half the issue. What she and the Big Bow Floaters are really pushing for is a whole new approach to water management, starting from the top down. Citing irrigation as the biggest consumer, Droitsch noted over 75 per cent of Bow River water allocation is used for agriculture. Because of the consumptive nature of the Bow, most water withdrawn for irrigation is not returned to the river after use. To Droitsch and her colleagues this has troubling consequences for the river ecosystems downstream of the irrigation districts, and threatens the long term sustainability of the Bow.

Population growth over the next few decades will necessitate increased water use while factors like global climate change and heavy drought years may lead to severe water scarcity. The year 2001 was the first in history where more permits were issued by the provincial government than there was water volume in the river. Luckily, noted Droitsch, not all of the allocated water was used. But with the government still respecting water permits issued as far back as the 1890s, the Big Bow Floaters believe Alberta is setting itself up for future water problems.

“If we don’t do something now, in 25 or 50 years, life will probably be a whole hell of a lot different,” said Kievit, patting the head of his dog Rocco. Rocco is joining the trio on the float–lifejacket and all. “For decades we’ve had enough water that we’ve said ‘this is a renewable resource.'”

The Big Bow Floaters realize there is an existing economic imperative to continue mass irrigation, but believe the time to start thinking about change is now. Most importantly, the government must stop issuing new water permits, said Droitsch. Also, the Floaters are calling for limits to be set on water allocation that correspond with requirements for maintaining water quality, wildlife, recreational use and waste assimilation. Ultimately, Droitsch recommends a slow change in agricultural practices and a hard look at whether growing crops which require irrigation is the best use of our rivers.

“This river is not allocated based on the amount of water available, it’s based on human needs,” seethed Droitsch. “The government is still issuing water permits. Let’s not dig ourselves into a deeper hole than we’re already in.”

Although their warnings may sound dire, the Big Bow Floaters stressed their message is a positive one. They encourage everyone to get out and learn about the river which literally supports life in this region, or even better, to pick up a paddle and get on the water.

“In order for people to help these issues along they really have to have it mean something personal to them,” said Van Hout moments before the trio pulled their canoes from the muddy banks of the Bow to continue their course. “Get out there.”

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