Development threatens Bow River

Alberta is often recognized for its booming oil and gas industry, but praises for the most important natural resource of all will have to wait.

According to the government of Alberta’s 2006-07 Measuring Up Report, released Thu., Jun. 28, only two of Alberta’s six river systems were rated “good” to “excellent” on the province’s river quality index for the 2005-06 year. Although the Old Man, Bow, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan river systems did not meet the target water quality levels, Alberta Environmental spokesperson Cara Van Marck explained it is common for the quality of river water to be low following periods of heavy rainfall, such as those which triggered flooding throughout the province in 2005. She noted higher water levels from the heavy rainfall cause increased runoff of debris into river water.

“These results are not surprising or alarming,” said Van Marck. “This is not anything to be concerned about.”

Liberal environmental critic David Swaan agreed that excess rainfall is a factor contributing to water quality, but stressed other man-made factors need to be examined. Among these factors, Swaan noted development projects, specifically in the Calgary area, as a major contributor to the Bow River’s decreasing water quality.

“The degradation of our water supply is only going to increase,” said Swaan. “[Water quality levels] now are the writing on the wall for the future.”

In the government’s recent report, the Bow River rated “fair,” said Bow River Basin Council executive director Mark Bennett, who explained the quality of the Bow’s water this year is a significant change from past years. Although Bennett recognized heavy rainfall as a contributing factor, he also noted the effects of the rainstorms may not have been as significant two to three hundred years ago, prior to the heavy development which now lines the Bow River’s banks.

“The government has cited the rainstorms of 2005 as a factor, but it’s only one,” said Bennett. “Any development that has led to a change from natural conditions could have had some impact.”

In addition to keeping development projects away from river banks, Swaan stressed runoff from oil and gas companies located near Alberta’s watersheds needs to be closely monitored.

“We have to review these kinds of decisions to make water our priority, rather than oil and gas,” he said. “People know their life-blood is water, not oil and gas.”

While Van Marck did not state any specific initiatives the government is taking to protect Alberta’s river systems from the oil and gas industry, she noted Water for Life–the Alberta government’s strategy for sustainable water initiatives–is currently being updated and will address how industry impacts the environment. Van Marck also noted all Albertans are currently able to provide feedback on the strategy’s website.

“A lot of Albertans have some really fantastic ideas so it’s really important they get their two cents in,” she said.

Swaan also encouraged Albertans to share their water concerns with their MLA, or directly with the premier, as he believes the Water for Life Program would benefit from citizen’s involvment.

“[The strategy] has been going for four years now, but it does not seem to be working,” he said.

The renewal plan marks the end of the first three-year time frame within the ten-year implementation of the strategy.

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