How you can be a water leader.

About a month ago, I was in Toronto’s distillery district during the Panam Games. I happened to walk through on one of the nights that Porte Parole’s Watershed Project was being exhibited.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Watershed Project is a live art installation composed of two small rooms. As you walk through the exhibit, you have the opportunity to converse with water. Water literally speaks to you – and you speak back, talking about your earliest memories of water, what it means to you, and what you will do to protect it.


I don’t remember my first experience with water. I can’t tell you the first time I saw the ocean, or the first time I dipped my toes in a lake. I don’t remember how I felt the first time I saw a fish while I was snorkelling or whether I even liked swimming as a small child.


What I can tell you, though, is that as a teenager and in my adult life, I developed a strangely protective, passionate love for water. As I grew older, I never felt more happiness and awe as I did when I looked upon the ocean. But I also never felt more anger and hurt as I did when I learned of the burden our oceans were carrying, and the lack of protection they were receiving from us.


It seems now that everything I do comes back to water. I’ve researched the extensive impact humans have had on fish populations, large and small, around the globe. I’ve signed petitions to ban toxic chemicals’ use in Canada. And I spread the word as much as I can about the importance of protecting Canada’s most precious resource.


Being a water leader – it isn’t something that will burden you. Rather, it will empower you, make you know you’re doing the right thing. All it takes is your belief that water is important to protect, and your desire to use your skills – whatever they may be – to support the life force that flows through yours, and my, veins.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know where to start.

…So, where do you start?

Here are a few ideas:


It doesn’t matter if your contribution is big or small – it’s enough that you’re making a contribution. Together, we’re a united voice for Canada’s watershed.

Mapping Swimmer’s Itch Across Alberta

Many of us have had it.


I’m talking about the red, itchy rash we sometimes get after swimming in a lake.

Commonly called “Swimmer’s Itch,” Alberta has seen a considerable rise in the amount of cases reported this year.

Swimmer’s Itch is caused by the small larvae of parasites, known as schistosomes, which are transported by infected snails and deposited into fresh and salt water. These parasites are found in lakes and ponds across Alberta and the rest of Canada.

When the schistome larvae come into contact with your skin, they can penetrate the surface and cause your body to have an allergic reaction in the form of a red, bumpy rash. The rash can last up to two weeks (and will probably drive you crazy).

This summer, Alberta has seen more outbreaks of swimmer’s itch than normal, but it isn’t entirely clear why or how many people are affected each year. This has made it challenging for Alberta Health Services (AHS) to notify swimmers when and where there is a high risk of an outbreak.

This year, AHS teamed up with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta to dig deeper into the life history and range of this common parasite. Through research and surveys, they’re mapping Swimmer’s Itch in our province. Eventually, the researchers are hoping to be able to predict where and when outbreaks will be the most prevalent. They’ve come up with this risk map, which they’ve put together with the help of swimmers like you documenting when and where they came into contact with the parasite.


Have you had swimmer’s itch? Some of the symptoms include the following:

  • tingling, burning, or itching of the skin
  • small, reddish pimples
  • small blisters

Often, the rash will go away gradually in a week or so, but itching the affected area can cause pimples to develop into small blisters. To learn more, you can read the U of A FAQ on Swimmer’s Itch here.


You can support this project, and help keep Albertans informed, by filling out this survey.



Swimmer’s Itch.

What is Alberta’s Water Future?

You might have read our blog post back in July talking about WWF’s Canada-wide assessment of our most prominent watersheds. Or our post about the drought-like conditions affecting much of Alberta. WWF’s ambitious Canadian watershed project, along with flooding, wildfires, and drought across our province this summer, have gotten us thinking – what is Alberta’s water future?

Agriculture, urban development, and industrial needs all put pressure on our reserves or ground and surface water. So does your and my personal use.

Of course, water supplies replenish themselves, but our growing population along with climate change are making this cycle, and the availability of our water supply, more variable. With Alberta’s population expected to almost double by 2040, the majority of which will be seen in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, where will the water we need come from?1

The University of Alberta’s Water Initiative is already working on a project mapping Alberta’s water future, and their research is looking at water supply under various climate variability and climate change scenarios. The Government of Alberta runs the Water for Life strategy, which is committed to managing and safeguarding our water resources. Alberta Innovates, Energy and Environment Solutions (AI-EES) committed $10 million in 2013 to water research projects dedicated to a number of water areas, from drinking water and security to ecosystem management and conservation.

Climate change is perhaps the most challenging component of this to map: we already know that the water cycle is becoming more uncertain due to climate change, and extreme weather is increasing in frequency. Some of these changes include changes in the duration and intensity of precipitation, decreases in snowfall and shorter, warmer winters (like the one we saw this year). We’re also seeing 100-year storms increase in frequency. But it’s not entirely clear how these changes will proceed in the future, and what we can expect over the next generations in conjunction with development, agriculture, and our own everyday needs.

Understanding our sources of ground and surface water in the province will be critical to managing it and ensuring availability for decades to come. It’s important we understand our relationship with water and how our actions will shape it, as it shapes us.



Government of Alberta. (2013). Water for Life. Retrieved from:


Why are Alberta’s trout species threatened?

5 per cent.

That’s what’s left of the once-thriving population of cutthroat trout in Alberta. Combine that with a 70 per cent loss of habitat for Alberta’s provincial fish, the bull trout, and things aren’t looking too positive for our freshwater fishes. Both cutthroat and bull trout are now restricted to high elevations, when they were once abundant through the Oldman and Bow river basins.

Facing multiple pressures

So why the dramatic decline? The biggest threat might not be what you think: off-highway vehicles. Quads, 4x4s, dirt bikes, and other off-highway vehicles tear up the stream bottom, compromise important habitat, and increase the amount of silt and sediment being deposited into important spawning grounds.1

But it’s not just our off-roading friends to blame. The creation of logging roads, expansion of energy development, effluent runoff from feedlots, and draining of watersheds to meet irrigation needs are all part of the problem. Together, these pressures create an ecosystem that is heavily disturbed, and its estimated that the disturbance density of the Oldman watershed are ten times the recommended maximum to ensure the long-term health of cutthroat and bull trout.

But why is silt and sediment a problem?

We used to think silt and sediment would just be washed away when it entered our waterways, but this actually isn’t the case: these tiny particles of sand and dirt become trapped in the bigger stones and gravel that make up the stream bed, where it solidifies. Eventually, the sediment and silt becomes so concentrated in the seafloor that water can’t permeate through it, creating what is referred to as a “hardpack streambed.” This makes it extremely difficult for trout to carve out redds (nests) – and hardpacks aren’t expected to go anywhere soon.

Echoed all over the province

In order to see real, lasting change for all of our native species of fishes and freshwater species, Alberta will need to address its land-use policies and make considerable changes.2 Some of these would include better protection for headwaters, more control of industrial activity, and improved water quality monitoring.

What can you do?

The biggest thing we can do to ensure the long-term health of our freshwater species is to limit the impact we have on our waterways directly. When you’re out camping, leave some distance between your site and the water. Don’t use your off-highway vehicle in or near the water. And make sure you use caution down on the waterfront.



CBC News. (June 13, 2015). Alberta trout threatened, say anglers and environmentalists. Retrieved from:


Bob Weber. (July 12, 2015). Most Alberta trout streams threatened: survey. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from:


Why a Canadian Ban on Microbead Matters

Microbeads. It’s a dirty word, isn’t it? These tiny plastic particles, which first appeared in our personal care products in the late 1970s, have been washing down our drains, making their way past treatment plants, and contaminating waterways across Canada and around the globe.


Last Friday, the Government of Canada proposed in a press release that they planned to develop regulations that would ban microbeads from use in personal care products. The regulations would prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of personal care products that contain microbeads.1 The decision was informed by a 130-paper scientific review and analysis.


The next steps, the press release states, will be to add microbeads to the List of Toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (EPA).


Canada first started getting serious about microbeads back in March, when Environment Canada began to study the dangers they posed to wildlife and the environment. It was at that time the NDP first asked the federal government to list microbeads as a potential toxic substance because of the risk they posed to the health of humans, animals, and the environment.2


In 2014, the 5 Gyres Institute did a study of the U.S. Great Lakes, where they found an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometre. That number doesn’t even begin to come close to what was found near cities (about 466,000).1 In the same year, Illinois became the first U.S. state to enact legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of microbead-containing products; other states began to follow suit, including New Jersey and New York State.


Most corporations, including Loblaws and Johnson & Johnson, have promised to phase out microbeads by 2017 or 2018.3



Government of Canada. (July 31, 2015). Harper Government to ban microbeads in personal care products.  Retrieved from:

The Canadian Press. (March 25, 2015). Plastic microbead dangers studied by Environment Canada. Retrieved from:

CTVNews. (July 30, 2015). Ottawa plans to ban microbeads over environmental concerns. Retrieved from:


Revisiting Triclosan

Last November, we were part of a group of over 50 health and environmental non-profits organizations that signed onto a public statement in support of prohibiting the use of Triclosan (a harmful anti-microbial agent) in Canada.


Wondering what came of that? Us, too.

On July 27 of this year, we were part of a joint NGO letter urging the government to take action on Triclosan. Our letter advised the Government of Canada to finalize its decision on Triclosan and find the chemical toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act,1999 (CEPA 1999). We reiterated our support for the prohibition of Triclosan in all products.

The draft risk assessment of Triclosan, which was completed in 2012, advised the government to declare the chemical toxic and be added to the Toxics Substances List. Over 3.5 years later, we’re still waiting for this to happen.


Our July letter comes on the heels of the Federal Government’s Third Report on Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals in Canada, which showed the presence and quantity of contaminants present in Canadians.

Results were sampled from 5,800 Canadians aged 3-79. Triclosan, one of the harmful chemicals measured in the sample population, is one of the only toxic chemicals measured to have increased in our population since the last study.  Both BPA and lead levels, for example, have decreased.


What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical linked to endocrine disruption, meaning it interferes with hormone function.1 It’s primarily used in antibacterial soaps and boady washes, toothpastes, and other cosmetic products. The chemical passes through the skin and can be irritating to the skin and eyes.

Environmentally, it has been noted that Triclosan quite possibility causes long-term adverse effects in aquatic environments. Triclosan is bioaccumulative and persistent – meaning it takes a long time to break down and subsequently builds up in the environment.1


So why isn’t it banned yet?

Good question. Primarily, the challenge comes because Triclosan is so widely used. The amount of Triclosan that can be used in products is actually quite limited, but since it is bioaccumulative and toxic, it quickly adds up in our bodies and natural environments.1

Yet, leading scientists and health professionals have called for urgent action on Triclosan, due to increasing antibiotic resistance and the ongoing toxic effects in the environment – particularly in Canadian lakes and rivers.2

Some major retailers, inclugin Loblaws, are promising to remove triclosan from all products by 2018 (Loblaws has also promised to remove microbeads and phthalates by this date as well).3


We hope our recent letter helps push Triclosan towards being banned in Canada, for the health of Canadians and all of our watersheds.



1. David Suzuki Foundation. Triclosan. 2015. Retrieved from:

2. Health Canada. July 15, 2015. Government of Canada releases latest data on exposure to environmental chemicals. Retrieved from:

3. Friend, David. June 11, 2015. Loblaw Companies Ltd removing microbeads, Triclosan, phthalates, from beauty products by 2018. Retrieved from:

How clean is the North Saskatchewan River?

When you ask someone about the quality of the North Saskatchewan River, clean might not be the first word they respond with. But saying the North Saskatchewan River is “dirty” isn’t correct. The early history of our river and its muddy brown appearance are both partly responsible for misconceptions about the health of the river today.

The river’s quality has improved significantly in the last half-century, and bacterial levels have lowered to those measured in the 1920s, despite a 10-fold increase in population.1 Improvements in water quality are primarily due to improved sewage and wastewater treatment, though a better understanding of how to protect and manage our watershed have also contributed to increased health. Yet misconceptions about its health are still widespread, and this challenges our community’s connection to the watershed. We’re hoping to change the perception of our watershed through outreach and education.


Just because its brown, doesn’t mean it’s dirty.

The appearance of the North Saskatchewan River is mainly due to natural processes. In the spring, the river is a muddy-brown colour because of sediments and silts, which are washed into the river as snowmelt and rainfall increases.The colour of the water changes in early to mid-summer, when water flow is reduced and sediments settle.3 The river is particularly prone to this muddy colouration when it flows through Edmonton due to natural topography and high levels of erosion.

Today, a few sources of pollution do threaten our water, primarily in the form of discharge from storm sewer outfalls and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Urban and agricultural runoff deposit heavy metals, nutrients, and other contaminants into our waters. However, these only pose a threat to human health during heavy rainfall and snowmelt.

Discharges into the river continue to be reduced, and stormwater is being better treated. There is also a trend towards wastewater reuse. All of these are contributing to increasing health of our watershed.4


Our river wasn’t always clean, and that’s a big reason we think it’s dirty today.

Standing in the river valley today, you wouldn’t know that this beautiful urban escape was once a dumping ground for toxic industrial waste. But it was: in the early 20th century, downtown Edmonton was a booming industrial landscape, and the river valley was populated with coalmines, brickyards, garbage dumps, and slaughterhouses.The North Saskatchewan River was a natural effluent for all of these. On top of this, logging operations used the river as a float for log booms, and dredging equipment cluttered the river. Combined with untreated human waste that was routinely discharged into the river, the North Saskatchewan endangered those who dared to drink or come into contact with it with real threat of disease and infection. 3

In the early 1950s, an assessment of the water was done and results were chilling: by the time the river reached the Saskatchewan border, there was no dissolved oxygen left, and no life could be found in the river. These findings were pivotal to our understanding of the watershed – and we began to take steps to protect and manage our watershed.4


Today, the North Saskatchewan River is (mostly) clean and safe to swim in.

But there’s always more we can do, and we need to continue to protect and maintain our watershed to ensure it stays that way.



  1. Bunner, Paul. (October 23, 2014). I swam in the North Saskatchewan River and lived to tell this tale. Retrieved from:
  2. City of Edmonton. (2015). North Saskatchewan River – Water Quality. Retrieved from:
  3. Marcellin, Josh. (May 2015). River Valley Alliance.The North Saskatchewan River has killer angling right in Edmonton. Vue Weekly.Retrieved from


Let’s have a conversation about drought.

We love water, and it’s our love for our watershed that drives us to share stories about our watershed with you. But what happens when water is in short supply? How do we start a dialogue about the lack of this precious resource?


Yes, we’re talking about drought.


This summer, our province – and the rest of Western Canada – has felt the weight of drought-like conditions. Uncontrolled wildfire, agricultural disaster, and water restrictions have affected much of the western half of our country.


Our own North Saskatchewan River is at its lowest flow rate in 14 years, sitting at about a third of what we usually see this time of year. A warm winter and little spring rain is being blamed.


The conditions are worst in Southern Alberta, where residents are being asked to use less water and temporary licenses for water use are being restricted. Thousands of hectares of wildfires blaze across Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Alaska.


But is drought like this abnormal?


Not exactly. Drought is unsurprising in Alberta and the rest of the prairies, and extreme droughts have been recorded in our province’s history. One of the worst droughts occurred during the Great Depression, when the prairies were plagued with swarms of grasshoppers, crop failure, erosion of topsoil, and salinization of the soil3. The drought lasted into the 1930s, and the average income of Saskatchewan farmers plunged more than 70 per cent in 5 years. This period of time was referred to as the “Dust Bowl,” and regular dust storms swept across the prairies of North America. Drought has come and gone since then, and the last drought of such magnitude struck in the 1980s4.


Yet, it is the continuity and widespread nature of the drought this year that is abnormal: the dry area extends from the edge of Northwest Ontario to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Mexican border to nearly the Arctic Ocean2. The drought impacts us economically and environmentally. Along with personal daily use, our province needs water for our crops, construction projects, and recreation.


Since our watershed receives most of its depth from snowmelt, winter warming will have increasing effects on our watershed. Climate change increases the variability of precipitation, and periods of drought may increase in frequency and length4.


We’re watching our watershed for the effects of this year’s drought.





Mertz, E. (July 9, 2015). North Saskatchewan River at lowest flow rate since 2001. Global News. Retrieved from:


Mandel, Charles. (July 13, 2015). Is this drought caused by climate change? The National Observer. Retrieved from:


Prairie Drought and Recovery. (2015). Canadian Geographic. Retrieved from:


Drought in 20th Century Alberta. (2013). Alberta Water Portal. Retrieved from:


Water & Drought. (2015). SaskAdapt. Retreived from:



Ramping up efforts to stop the spread of invasive Zebra Mussels into Alberta

In March, our province unveiled the latest steps in their strategy to prevent invasive zebra mussels from entering our province and becoming established in our waterways. Part of the strategy included mandatory boat inspections, and this summer, Alberta Environment and Parks opened 13 stations across our province. Inspection stations are aided by three permanent mussel-sniffing dogs.


Why are they so bad?


Zebra mussels have detrimental effects on biodiversity, agriculture, industry, water, and tourism, among others. The mussels colonize both hard and soft surfaces, including docks and boats, and can clog intake structures in power stations and water treatment plants. If they were to become established in our province, zebra mussels could damage 1100 km of canals and pipelines that transport water to Albertans. Economically, the cost of a zebra mussel invasion in Alberta is estimated at $75 million annually.


Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they remove good nutrients from the water, leaving little food for native species. This rapidly decreases biodiversity in our waterways. It also increases sunlight availability in our watersheds, increasing the growth of aquatic vegetation as well as light available for toxic algae blooms. By colonizing surfaces, they cover important spawning grounds, and can impact the survival of fish eggs3.



Are they in Alberta?


So far, zebra mussels have not been identified in Alberta waterways – but that doesn’t mean we’re safe; several infested boats have been intercepted entering the province in the last few years, many of which are coming from areas with known zebra mussel infestations in the U.S. and parts of Eastern Canada.


How do they get here?


Zebra Mussels attach themselves to boats and other recreational equipment. They are found in many parts of North America, including the Colorado River system in the U.S., a popular destination for Alberta snowbirds1. When boats aren’t carefully cleaned, drained, and dried, the zebra mussels can be transported back to Alberta waterways without boat owners knowing.


What is the province doing?


Along with mandatory boat inspections, Alberta has recently enacted changes to legislation that makes boat and watercraft inspections mandatory on major highways coming into the province2.


This is accompanied by Alberta Environment and Parks “Clean, Drain, Dry” Education campaign, and a 24-hour invasive species hotline.


What can I do to help?


If you own a boat, especially if you are transporting it across borders, make sure you clean and inspect your watercraft, trailer and gear. Make sure to drain all water from bait buckets, ballasts, bilges, coolers, internal compartments, or any other area that water might be stored. Lastly, dry your watercraft and gear between trips. Read more here.


If you think you’ve spotted a zebra mussel, call Alberta’s invasive species hotline at 1.855.336.BOAT (2628).




  1. Aquatic Invasive Species. Alberta Environment and Parks. (June 25, 2015). Retrieved from
  2. Watercraft Inspections. Alberta Environment and Parks. (June 23, 2015). Retrieved from:
  3. Zebra and Quagga Mussels. Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program. (2012). Retrieved from:

WWF assessed half of Canada’s watersheds, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 7.14.07 PM

This month, WWF released the first half of a Canada-wide assessment of our 25 most prominent watersheds. The assessment focused on four indicators of watershed health and seven key threats. Measures of health included hydrology, water quality, fish, and benthic macro-invertebrate communities. The seven key threats assessed were pollution, climate change, alteration of water flows, invasive species, water use, fragmentation, and habitat loss.


How did our watershed do?


The North Saskatchewan River watershed ranged in overall threat level from moderate to very high. You can see the data for our watershed here.


Edmonton and area received a rating of “high.” The biggest threats to our watershed were pollution and fragmentation, which were assessed at “very high”; this was closely followed by habitat loss. Climate change posed a moderate risk, while overuse of water and invasive species were listed as low risk.


The main source of pollution to our watershed is agricultural runoff. Fragmentation was largely driven by roads and rail infrastructure as well as dams.


What’s threatened in our watershed?


More than 1.2 million people live within our watershed, the majority of which are located in the greater Edmonton area. We share this important habitat with moose, elk, woodland caribou, and the endangered burrowing owl. Our river contains 27 native fish species, including massive Lake Sturgeon, a species dating back to prehistoric times that is increasingly being threatened by urban development and expansion.


How was health assessed?

This section is meant to summarize the health indicators used in the WWF assessment. You can find WWF’s detailed methodology here.



Hydrology accounts for changes in a river’s flow, or the amount of alteration from its natural flow regime. WWF’s assessment measured trends in monthly and annual flows over time.


If large dams (ie. greater than 10m in height) were present, hydrology was assessed between pre- and post-dam conditions. If no large dams were present, the test was completed comparing monthly flow with a benchmark or related historical time period.


Water Quality

Water quality is often monitored for its consequences to aquatic life and relevance for humans, primarily for drinking water and recreation. The assessment focused on chemical components rather than biological (eg. E. coli or other bacteria, viruses and protozoa). This section focused on aquatic life, though future iterations may focus on other indicators more related to or specifically related to human health and wellbeing.



Fish are an important part of aquatic health. Not only are they integral in aquatic food webs, but also are of high commercial and recreational value to humans.


Fish – and all life – can be assessed at different levels. For example, species richness can be assessed coarsely, where it provides a snapshot of overall health; species abundance can be studied to show population-level health; and size and weight can be measured for individual analysis. Most publicly availably data is based on species presence or absence or focused on individual species of commercial or recreational value.


Benthic Macrocommunity

WWF used the Hilsenhoff Biotic Index (HBI) to determine the health of benthic macro invertebrate communities. The HBI accounts for sensitivity of benthic invertebrates to disturbance and indicates degree of disturbance of the sampling location (based on their relative abundance in the sample).


WWF aims to have the assessment complete by our country’s 150th birthday in 2017. To learn more about the assessment and see how your watershed is doing, visit the site here.