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Watersheds are the sum of the streams that gather from heights of land and flow into a common water basin. Sometimes called catchment basins, watersheds are made up of many sub-basins, or tributary basins.

A watershed resembles the venous system of the body as it gathers blood in tiny veins that drain into larger vessels, finally delivering their flow into the heart. How fresh water is managed in individual watersheds is the key to a sustainable water supply. The government of Alberta divides the provinces into seven large watersheds.

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    “All things are interconnected. Everything goes somewhere. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Nature bats last.”    Ernest Callenbach

    Willmore Wilderness

    Willmore Wilderness (J. Hildebrand)

    Watersheds of Alberta

    Major watershed basins of Alberta. Map © AWA

    • Hay River – The Hay River Basin in the northwest corner of Alberta originates in B.C.’s mountains and eventually empties into the Arctic Ocean. Two lakes within the basin, Zama and Hay, are recognized for their importance to wildlife.
    • Peace/Slave Rivers – The Peace/Slave Basin encompasses a diagonal swath across the northern part of the province. The Peace River originates in B.C.’s mountains and flows northeast, eventually emptying into the Slave River. This basin includes the Wapiti, Smokey, Little Smokey, and Wabasca rivers.
    • Athabasca River – The Athabasca Basin covers the area south of the Peace/Slave Basin. The Athabasca River originates in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and flows northeast, emptying into Lake Athabasca. Communities in this basin include Jasper, Hinton, Whitecourt, Athabasca, and Fort McMurray. Other rivers that drain into this basin include the McLeod, Clearwater, and Pembina. The major issues in this basin are (1) the enormous quantity of water allocated for tar sands exploitation and (2) the fact that 90 percent of this water is so polluted in the process that it cannot be returned to the river.
    • Beaver River – The Beaver River Basin, one of the smaller basins in Alberta, begins from Beaver Lake in east central Alberta. The Beaver River flows east through Bonnyville, Cold Lake, and Grand Centre, continues through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and eventually empties into Hudson’s Bay.
    • North Saskatchewan River – The North Saskatchewan River Basin has its headwaters in the ice fields of the Rockies. Within Alberta, the Nordegg, Clearwater, Ram, Sturgeon, and Vermillion rivers are all part of this basin. The city of Edmonton is located within this basin, as well as the communities of Drayton Valley, Fort Saskatchewan, and the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve. Of particular concern in this basin is the heavy pressure on water resources coming from the oil and gas sector and other industries.
    • South Saskatchewan River – The headwaters of the South Saskatchewan River Basin are also in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The basin encompasses the Bow, Red Deer, Old Man, and South Saskatchewan rivers. The cities of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat are all located within this basin, as well as all 13 of the province’s irrigation districts. Over-allocation of water for irrigation is the major issue in this basin.
    • Milk River – The Milk River Basin is the smallest basin in the province. The Milk River originates in western Montana, flows north through the southeast corner of Alberta and then returns to Montana in the eastern half of that state. It eventually becomes part of the Missouri River drainage system. The town of Milk River is one of the few towns in this basin.
    Milk River near Bonita

    Milk River near Bonita

    The Importance of Watershed Protection

    Protecting the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains is crucial for preserving water quality and quantity. Alberta’s Rocky Mountains form the uppermost reaches of large catchment basins, gathering the water that supplies much of Canada with fresh water. For example, 90 percent of the water in the South Saskatchewan River Basin comes from the foothills watersheds, which make up only 12 percent of the area of the river basin.
    Four of Canada’s great rivers originate in the Eastern Slopes. The Peace and Athabasca rivers run east and then north, joining in Wood Buffalo National Park to form the mighty Mackenzie River, which empties into the Arctic Ocean. The North and South Saskatchewan rivers join in Saskatchewan and flow east and north through Manitoba, emptying into the Hudson’s Bay.

    The Eastern Slopes have been recognized as key watersheds since the early 1900s. In 1948, the federal and provincial governments established the Eastern Rockies Forest Conservation Board, which provided a framework for the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve until 1973. The Reserve was formally established by the Forest Reserves Act in 1964 for the maintenance of water supply and the conservation of forest and other vegetation.
    In 1977, the Eastern Slopes Policy was developed after substantial public consultation, including extensive participation by AWA. The Policy’s highest priority was “watershed management to ensure a reliable supply of clean water for aquatic habitat and downstream users.”

    Aerial view of the Castle wilderness, southern Eastern Slopes of the Rockies

    Aerial view of the Castle wilderness, southern eastern Alberta (D. Samson)

    Forests and Water

    Mountains and high lands intercept clouds, causing rain and snow to fall. The Rockies stall water-laden clouds blown west from the Pacific Ocean and the water accumulates in glaciers, snowfields, soils, and forests. From these, water is released slowly through the seasons into lower parts of the watershed.

    The forested slopes of the Rockies and the foothills play a very important role in storing, cleansing, and slowly releasing water in upper watersheds. Forest soils with their deep layers of mosses, lichens, and organic matter are natural sponges that absorb and hold water. Trees themselves act like water towers, holding large amounts of water as it slowly passes from the ground, gathered by the roots, into the air via the leaves. Trees and all forms of vegetation purify water as it passes through their systems.

    “To protect your rivers, protect your mountains.”
    Emperor Yu of China, 1600 B.C.E

    The American Water Works Association has found that every 10 percent increase in forest cover in a watershed – up to 60 percent forest cover – results in a 20 percent decrease in water treatment costs. Forests also contribute to flood prevention by holding water in place. When we destroy our forests, we are destroying one of the key features that helps the landscape retain and slowly release the water it receives.

    As surface water plummets downhill in fast-moving streams, over rocks and waterfalls, it is being oxygenated to support aquatic life and cleansed. The action of water being thrown into the air adds air and puts it in contact with ozone and ultra violet light that kills parasites and bacteria. Fast moving headwaters streams perform this role well.

    Water quality is enhanced as it passes through healthy natural ecosystems. These systems also act to control flooding by holding water in place and releasing it slowly. Maintaining watersheds in their natural form is increasingly being seen as important for maintaining wildlife and for reducing the costs associated with providing clean, safe drinking water and flood control.

    Headwaters Protection

    As communities everywhere become more aware of the vital role healthy watersheds play in cleaning and filtering water, more is being done to protect them. Many cities in North America, including New York and Vancouver, are spending millions of dollars in securing their watersheds through purchasing or leasing land, or buying forestry rights.

    In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become a key player in promoting watershed protection. With regard to drinking water, EPA has developed programs, tools and resources to build capabilities for source water protection.  This approach was instrumental in helping New York City secure its watershed in a landmark agreement in December 1996.

    The process involved residents and stakeholders coming together to find ways to minimize pollution in the watershed. Most of the pollution was due to runoff from urban and agricultural areas, including dairy farms and wastewater discharges from treatment plants. To resolve these, the parties involved agreed on land-use regulations that preserve the integrity of the watershed. Landowners are able to develop their property within the regulations, or they can choose to sell it to the City. The City also acquired land that is vital to the protection of key reservoirs and water.

    Without these changes to protect the watershed, and thereby achieve high water quality, federal law would have required New York City to build a water filtration system at a cost in excess of 8.5 billion dollars. According to Carol Browner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “By putting in place the mechanisms for protecting New York City’s drinking water at the source, by keeping contamination out of the water supply in the first place, we offer the promise of protecting public health while saving billions of dollars for rate payers.”

    The City of Vancouver has also successfully protected the three watersheds that supply its water. After determining that logging in the watershed was ruining the water supply, the provincial government established the Greater Vancouver Water District in 1926 with a mandate to “end all logging and to purchase all the private lands to prevent further logging.” By 1927, the Water District had negotiated a 999-year lease with the provincial government giving it complete control over the watershed lands for the rental fee of one dollar per year, per watershed.

    In 1967, despite its clear mandate to protect the watersheds, the Greater Vancouver Water District negotiated a logging licence agreement with the provincial government. Road building and clearcutting began again. In 1988, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee launched a public campaign to bring attention to the logging issue in the Greater Vancouver watersheds. Other public advocacy groups joined in opposing the logging, and by 1995 logging activity had been successfully halted.

    Finally, in February 2002 the Greater Vancouver Water District return to full protection of the lands and forests in the Greater Vancouver watersheds by passing a motion to cancel the 1967 logging licence agreement with the provincial government (

    The City of Calgary has also become more active in trying to protect the Bow and Elbow River watersheds that supply its water. The City now recognizes that it is a major watershed stakeholder and has raised concerns about land use in the watersheds, including logging practices, site rehabilitation, and water body buffers.

    AWA’s representative on the Bow River Basin Council has pushed hard for a focus on the protection of the Bow’s headwater. Only recently has the Council stated this as a priority, and we hope to see recommendations to the government that will support our concerns for these southern Eastern Slopes watersheds.

    Headwaters Eastern Slopes Map

    The Eastern Slopes of the Rockies contain the headwaters of rivers that supply water to the prairie provinces and Northwest Territories.
    (From “An Impending Water Crisis in Canada’s Western Prairie Provinces,” David Schindler and Bill Donahue, 2006)

    What can we do?

    • Protect source water in watersheds through such tools as regulations, wise land management, land purchases, conservation covenants, and land-use agreements.
    • Legislate water allocation and licensing based on having sufficient water for the proper functioning of aquatic ecosystems.
    • Address the human demands on water that are caused by population growth and consumption rates.
    • Implement publicly developed water policy through regulations and incentives designed to conserve water.
    • Become aware of the source of our water and the value of aquatic ecosystems to cost-effectively store and clean water and to filter out pollutants and sewage.
    • Reduce our personal demands on water through lifestyle changes in sanitation, car washing, lawn/garden watering, rainwater collection, and so on.
    • Make more appropriate, sustainable decisions based on water costs for food production, packaging, consumer items, and transportation.
    • Reinforce confidence in the public water supply by avoiding bottled water. This will also cut down on plastic recycling and plastics entering landfill sites, where they may linger for thousands of years.

    August 1, 2002

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    Wild Lands Advocate 10(4): 18, August 2002 200208_AR_WAT2.pdf

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    June 1, 2002

    Water Management Planning for the Oldman River Basin Encounters Ecological Reality

    Wild Lands Advocate 10(3): 16, June 2002 200206_AR_WAT.pdf

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    April 1, 2002

    Fresh Water Oil Floods: The Ultimate Bulk Water Export

    Wild Lands Advocate article, April 2002, by Dale L.Watson 200204_AR_WAT2.pdf

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    April 1, 2002

    Meridian Dam – It’s Not Over Until the Wild River Sings

    Wild Lands Advocate article, April 2002, by Cliff Wallis 200204_AR_MD.pdf

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    April 1, 2002

    Province Opens Floodgates On Water Debate

    Wild Lands Advocate 10(2): 1-3, April 2002 200204_AR_WAT1.pdf

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    February 15, 2002

    Report: Meridian Dam Preliminary Feasibility Study

    Preliminary feasibility study prepared by Golder Associates, submitted to Alberta Environment and Saskatchewan Water Corporation…

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    February 1, 2002

    Dammed If You Do

    Wild Lands Advocate article, February 2002, by K.E. Bray 200202_AR_WAT1.pdf

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    February 1, 2002

    Managing Water in the Bow River Basin

    Wild Lands Advocate 10(1): 17-18, February 2002 200202_AR_WAT2.pdf

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    February 1, 2002

    Watersheds in Alberta Fact Sheet


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    December 1, 2001

    Watersheds Are Source Of Concern As Province Launches New Water Strategy

    Wild Lands Advocate 9(6): 1-3, December 2001 200112_AR_WAT.pdf

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