Impacts On Water Quality – Upper Elbow River (full report)


The Elbow River is a relatively small river, providing water to meet a variety of needs. These include drinking water for almost one-sixth of Albertans, habitat for fish and wildlife, recreational opportunities, and water for livestock.

The value of the Elbow River system is rising with the increasing demand for growth and development within the Elbow River Basin. Because of this increasing development pressure, local and provincial governments need instream objectives to maintain the high quality river environment.

Instream objectives are targets to protect the aquatic and riparian ecosystems and water for human use.

The Upper Elbow River Instream Objectives Working Group was established in December 1997 to recommend instream objectives for the Elbow River upstream of Glenmore Reservoir. The Working Group had sixteen members, including local residents, water users, Alberta Environment staff, and representatives of Rocky View County, The City of Calgary, Tsuu Tina Nation, and fisheries, recreation, and environmental groups.

The Working Group agreed that, because of its unique nature, the upper Elbow River requires instream objectives that are specially tailored to:
* protect the aquatic and riparian ecosystems
* preserve current and future human use of water in the basin.

Elbow River in winter. Taken near the Trading Post, looking southwest.

The Working Group found that, at present, the quantity and quality of water in the upper Elbow River is, in general, good when compared to the requirements for the aquatic ecosystem and human uses. Some deterioration in water quality is occurring, as evidenced by increasing trends in the concentration of four of nine water quality indicators, as analyzed by Alberta Environment from data taken during the time period 1979 to 1997. The four variables for which there are increasing trends are dissolved phosphorus, turbidity, fecal coliforms, and total coliforms. The amount of water allocated through licences has also reached the point where instream objectives will be necessary to protect instream needs such as fish habitat and recreation.

The Working Group made eight recommendations, which are included in a report called Report of the Upper Elbow River Instream Objectives Working Group. The report was provided to Alberta Environment, which has prepared responses to the recommendations.

The Working Group’s key recommendation is:
In making decisions on licences, approvals, and other regulatory matters affecting the upper Elbow River, Alberta Environment should use the following instream objectives:
a. water quality objectives (designed to protect human uses and the environment, including municipal water supply, recreation, and the aquatic ecosystem)
b. the flow requirements of licensees or approval and registration holders who are downstream of a proposed activity
c. the flow to maintain fish habitat
d. the flow to maintain river recreation as follows:
* in Kananaskis Country and downstream to Bragg Creek – preferred flow for very skilled canoeists
* from Bragg Creek to Highway 22 – preferred flow for intermediate canoeists
* from Highway 22 to Glenmore Reservoir – minimum flow for canoeing
e. the instream flow objectives for the Elbow River downstream of Glenmore Dam
f. ongoing modification of instream objectives to accommodate new information about flow, water quality, and the inter-relationships between them.

Once established, the instream objectives will be referred to the Bow River Basin Water Council for advice on implementing the objectives. The instream objectives for the upper Elbow River will also become part of a water management plan for the Bow River Basin.