Group aims to improve water quality in Battle River watershed

PLAN Run-off from the Battle River watershed can travel as far as Hudson Bay, and it typically has very high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen

Water quality affects everyone, and that’s especially true in the Battle River watershed.

“Unlike many other watersheds in Alberta that have headwaters in mountain regions, the Battle River watershed is Prairie fed and our headwaters are near 60 per cent of our population,” said Sarah Skinner, watershed planning co-ordinator for the Battle River Watershed Alliance.

There is a lot of livestock production in the watershed, which sends water into the North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan rivers, and eventually into Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay.

The Battle River Watershed Alliance is currently hosting community meetings to seek input into a management plan for the area.

“We’re looking to develop strategies that will lead to the ultimate goal of sustainability of our watershed, economically, environmentally and socially,” said Skinner.

Although the alliance is not a regulatory body, it will make recommendations to government in regard to water quality, land management and drought management. The latter has been a focus for the past year.

“We’re at the point of developing those management recommendations, how to plan for and deal with drought,” said Skinner.

The next step is looking at non-point source pollution management.

“It’s often associated with water run-off from the land, so that can involve storm run-off and drainage systems that move water across the landscape,” she said. “As that water moves across our streets and sidewalks, it picks up different pollutants and we can never be quite sure where those pollutants are coming from.”

Guidelines exceeded

Alberta Environment has water quality monitoring stations throughout the province, including ones at Driedmeat Lake and Ponoka in the Battle River watershed. They were set up in 2007, and found phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients in the Battle River have exceeded provincial government targets since 2008. Recommended levels for phosphorus are exceeded 100 per cent of the time at seven of 11 stations while nitrogen exceeded the guidelines 50 per cent of the time at eight of the 11 stations.

About 50 per cent of the nutrients are from non-point sources and many are from point sources, including municipal waste water.

“Looking at the non-point sources, it’s not just rural and it’s not just urban,” Skinner said. “There is storm water that comes from our communities and streams that make it into the Battle River. But there’s also a lot of development in the countryside that could potentially be contributing nutrients and other pollutants in the river.”

Poor water quality can result in algae blooms on the water, fish kills, impact human health, and loss of recreational activities.

A 2006 provincial study on non-point source pollution found phosphorus in soil is directly related to the amount of phosphorus in run-off in those same areas.

“The amount of nutrients in the soils are linked to the amount of nutrients we find in the water and our actions on the land have an impact on water quality,” Skinner said.

“If you could limit the run-off from these areas, you have a major impact on the total amount of nutrients entering the watershed from agricultural land.”

It’s recommended producers keep their cattle out of waterways and use offsite watering systems. Conservation tillage, planting cover crops and keeping stubble on croplands can also help preserve water quality. Overfertilization, whether on crops or lawns, also contribute to the problem.