Pass focus of long-term international watershed study 0
Crowsnest Pass Promoter, Jan. 4 2012
Eight years after the Lost Creek fire, the effects are still providing information to a team of international researchers involved in a "flagship project" of the province.
Dr. Uldis Silins, professor of Forest Hydrology at the University of Alberta, Dr. Monica Emelko, water treatment engineer with the University of Waterloo, and Mike Stone, a large-scale river contaminant transport specialist, presented municipal council with an update of the project on Dec. 6.
The Southern Rockies Watershed Project is a joint study examining natural disturbances on landscapes and how this affects southern Rockies headwaters. The study looks at severe disturbances such as wildfire and the implications for regional water use.
Dr. Silins reported that the study is the largest of its kind worldwide and encompasses a very broad international team of researchers. He also stressed that the study is of particular importance because the eastern slopes are a critical source of water in the province with 90 percent of "pickup of river flow" coming from forested areas of the southern Rockies.
"In this part of the province, you are richly endowed. This is the highest provincial precipitation. and the highest proportion of runoff as a fraction of that precipitation," Dr. Silins.
He said before the Lost Creek wildfire of 2003, there wasn't a lot known about how such disturbances affect water quality and ecology of rivers. They've since learned sediments, contaminants, and nutrients all increased. The level of nitrogen was the highest reported by any study after the fire but the effect was gone by the third year. There was also a large effect on phosphorus but recovery has been slow. It has also contributed about 400 millimetres of "extra water hitting the ground". This represents about 35 to 40 per cent increased precipitation and about 50 per cent increase in runoff coming out of the burned environment.
According to Dr. Silins, there is a large effect on plants after the fire. Plant productivity in streams is 10 to 50 times greater which leads to increased insect abundance and diversity, and in turn, more fish.
"The legacy of this fire on some of these water values is turning out to be very, very long-lived and our colleagues internationally are telling us these are some of the longest lived effects that have ever been documented," he said. "We're also interested knowing something about the broader regional impact of these kinds of disturbances. and to assess what the implications are on social and economic sustainability, impact on communities."
Dr. Emelko reported to council the study was also looking at what the information means for Crowsnest Pass and downstream users.
"Forests represent two-thirds of the water supply for people in Canada and the U.S.," said Dr. Emelko. "That's a significant amount of water... We're very blessed with that supply because it's only the highest quality water supplies that have the most to lose with respect to disturbances on the landscape and their impacts on water quality."
The study shows that contaminants move downstream, solid sediments stay in water bodies for decades and they carry pathogens that change ecosystems, said Dr. Emelko. The question, she asks, is what are communities willing to pay to maintain a safe water supply?
"There are all these various water quality changes that are occurring. These can cost money to communities to provide safe drinking water," she said. "We can treat the water. The question is, at what cost?"
Dr. Emelko told council that over $4.2 million has been invested so far in the study and reiterated it's getting a lot of attention, regionally, provincially, nationally and internationally.
The study has been used to provide support for Disaster Relief applications as well as to give input into the Sentinel well license appeal.
Mayor Bruce Decoux confirmed that a Centre of Excellence is a "major thrust of the municipality" that could include hydrology studies.