The struggle to save the Sturgeon River watershed

This is a story about the one that got away, Acipenser fulvescens, or, as it’s commonly known, the lake sturgeon. Fifty years ago, or maybe more (no one knows for sure when it disappeared) the story might have gone differently. Maybe like this.

You’re a kid growing up in St. Albert, just northwest of Edmonton. One summer day, you’re on the banks of the Sturgeon River, a favourite hangout for you and the gang, throwing stones. You hit something floating past that you thought was a log but it surfaces: a bony, silver back glints in the sunshine.

It stretches almost two metres from a needle-like nose to a weird tail fin that makes you think, shark. So you and your buddies freak out, scatter, and later you tell mom and dad about the monster in the river. Relax, they say, it’s a sturgeon. You’re lucky to have seen one, mom and dad say. There aren’t a lot of them.

Today, there are almost certainly none because the river, like many in Alberta, has changed for the worse. Sturgeon, which can reach 90 kilograms over lifespans that can exceed a century, prefer big rivers, or ones with pools deep enough for good feeding.

The Sturgeon River is not only shallower these days, it’s slower, more polluted and starved at times of dissolved oxygen. That’s not to say it’s dead. Ducks love its pond-like qualities. Fish still traverse its muddy waters, though only the toughest: suckers, sticklebacks, northern pike, lake chub and fathead minnow. Beavers ply their trade, largely unbothered by natural predators.

Laurie Hunt and Debbie Webb (Biological Sciences Technology ’82) take this faint pulse as a sign of hope.

Since 2010, the Biological Science Technology instructors and researchers have treated the Sturgeon River as a living laboratory, involving students and local residents in grassroots science that no other organization, government or otherwise, is devoting the resources to undertake.

All of this depends on making residents (Hunt among them) believe that, despite the strains of industry, agriculture and decades of urban development, the health of the river and surrounding watershed could improve. Hunt and Webb want these banks – and those of any other Prairie river – to be a source of amazement rather than disappointment.

With a new project focused on riverbank rehabilitation, their rescue operation may be moving toward a far better ending than any fish tale.

What's missing are the trees

Sturgeon RiverJust behind a softball diamond west of downtown St. Albert lies one of many research sites for the project. It’s virtually invisible, obscured by prairie grass that Hunt and Webb have convinced groundskeepers to quit mowing, and that’s tall enough to hide a softball.

It’s a pleasant spot. Go to a game and you’d have a clear view through the chain-link backdrop onto the water, and to where the river bends gently southwest toward Big Lake. The problem is, the view should be obstructed.

What’s missing are the trees and shrubs that once made up the riparian habitat, that buffer between river and land. At least for now. Among the grass are native saplings: poplar, dogwood, alder, raspberry, white spruce, all recently planted by local Scouts, school groups and other volunteers.

“Given a few years, hopefully it looks like a more natural environment,” says Webb, who, like Hunt, thinks nothing of donning chest waders and slogging into the water when required. She points out the model on the opposite bank, a thicket of mature trees.

Riparian rehab hasn’t always been the focus for her and Hunt, who have involved students in the hands-on fieldwork required of all their research. Since beginning work on the Sturgeon River watershed in 2010, they’ve studied the impact of obstacles, such as culverts, on fish habitat fragmentation and also river shallowing caused by gravel and grit that enters via bridge decks and stormwater outflows, settling on the soft bottom.

The Sturgeon River Watershed

  • First settled in the 1800s in St. Albert
  • 3,301 square kilometres
  • Length of Sturgeon River: 260 km
  • Sturgeon River flows east from Hoople Lake to the North Saskatchewan River
  • Approx.1,200 farms
  • 4% developed land
  • 71% agricultural land

They’ve also regularly tested water quality and examined biodiversity at 22 sites throughout the watershed. Last spring, they decided replanting the river’s edge would be the most holistic way to allow the Sturgeon to start the natural process of healing itself.

It’s not the first time this type of work has been done in the area but now it bears the scientific rigour early attempts lacked. “Our hope was that everything would grow like mad . . . . It’s just not that easy,” says Dan Stoker, a former key member of REEP, the River Edge Enhancement Project, which has planted along the river for years.

NAIT’s work, he says, “is going to yield a lot better results than we could have ever done.”

A strip of vegetation just a few metres wide is a guardian, mostly against phosphorus, a nutrient that fuels scummy algae blooms that consume dissolved oxygen as they eventually decompose, suffocating fish and other organisms. Roots suck up phosphorus from fertilizers that run off fields and lawns, and stabilize banks that contain it in their soil.

What’s more, trees provide shade, cooling summer water temperatures and creating corridors for wildlife and homes for birds. Dead wood also contributes to the aquatic habitat, creating pools and eddies that are perfect spots for organisms to feed.

“If every community said we’re going to work to re-implement riparian buffers, that would have an overall, long-term, positive effect,” says Hunt, who likes to canoe the Sturgeon River with her kids.

They’re not only planting but recording which plants survive and thrive. The result, they hope, is a method to rescue Prairie riversides – created with the help of the people who live in the watershed.

Grassroots organizing

Planting trees on the bank of the sturgeon riverThe key to their success lies in grassroots organizing and mobilizing. The Government of Alberta regulates what can and cannot be dumped into rivers, and limits how much water can be withdrawn, but it does not assign full-scale reclamation work to users.

In many cases, it would be impossible to single out anyone for the job. In the Sturgeon River watershed, the damage has been a group effort over more than a century of farming, industry and simply living around the water.

Hunt doesn’t believe a heavy hand would help anyway. “If the government was to mandate something, I think the buy-in and compliance would be low.” Besides, she adds, when she and Webb surveyed landowners in the watershed, they discovered a strong interest in active environmental stewardship.

“They come up with some great ideas about how we can move forward,” says Hunt.

Citizens’ Views

Between May and December 2012, Hunt and Webb surveyed and interviewed local residents to measure perceptions of issues affecting the Sturgeon River watershed.

Their questions focused on the value of the resource, challenges and opportunities, and the best direction for research efforts. Three hundred eighty-seven residents participated. Here is a sample of their views.

  • The need for a watershed management plan – 93.8%
  • The need for more native vegetation along shores of lakes and rivers – 87.5%
  • Business or commercial use – 30.7%
  • Ecological value – 98.8%
  • Limiting development in highly sensitive areas – 96.4%
  • Rehabilitating habitat along shorelines – 94.5%

To make it happen, she and her team of three have focused on issues including stormwater outlets, grit from bridge decks and water testing. She also led the creation of a framework document, Sturgeon River: State of the Watershed Report, which identifies knowledge gaps – riparian health, water quality and biodiversity indicators – that Hunt and Webb could help fill.

“There’s incredible potential for educational institutes like NAIT to contribute to watershed management,” says Kongsrude, be it anything from basic fieldwork to educating residents about the ecosystem. Without such support, she admits she’d struggle to achieve her goals.

So might Lorraine Taylor, conservation coordinator with agricultural services in Lac Ste. Anne County, an hour’s drive northwest of St. Albert. A farming region like nearly three-quarters of the entire watershed, the county is home to a good portion of the area’s roughly 780,000 livestock.

Here, riparian buffers are more likely to be trampled by hooves than mowed, and water more likely affected by animals than humans. Overseeing conservation efforts isn’t easy. “I would say that my resources are fairly limited,” says Taylor, who runs a department of one and, being so close to the watershed’s headwaters of Hoople Lake, feels a keen sense of responsibility.

On top of measuring water quality in the area and getting its students into Lac Ste. Anne classrooms to describe their work, the NAIT group is working directly with landowners, county staff and the non-profit Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society (a.k.a. Cows and Fish).

Together, they organize riparian re-plantings with local volunteers, string wire for fencing projects to keep cattle away from the river and even help set up livestock watering systems with grants farmers would be unlikely to access for sheer lack of awareness.

“Transferring the science part of it to the let’s-get-it-done part is really what’s going to speak to the local people,” says Taylor.

Rivers are resilient

planting at the sturgeon riverAnd, as it happens, to the provincial government.

Michael Sullivan, provincial fish science specialist with Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, includes the Sturgeon watershed in the 80 per cent of rivers across Alberta that he loosely classifies as “in trouble.”

“We would like to be able to fish, swim and drink our water,” he says. “Once you get into the agricultural, the settled, the forestry, the developed areas, you start to lose each one of those things . . . and that’s not right.”

It’s not something he can correct alone. Sullivan, who has lectured in Hunt and Webb’s classes and hires their grads, looks at his work in addressing river deterioration as a big-picture endeavour involving four issues: overfishing, nutrient contamination, loss of ground water and habitat fragmentation.

He doesn’t have the resources to delve deeper, and drill down to solutions involving spades, rubber boots and the hope that a few dozen seedlings make it through harsh Alberta seasons.

For that, he relies on NAIT and institutes like it, and can even use their findings to develop enforceable environmental policies. But he cautions against relying on riparian studies alone in watersheds as stressed as the Sturgeon. It’s “a Band-Aid,” he says, in agricultural regions.

A riverside buffer of a few metres would struggle to absorb phosphorus from so many fields. Not that he believes they shouldn’t persevere. The methodology Hunt and Webb are developing is a tool he would like to be able to apply elsewhere in the province. “Band-Aids can be really useful to stop small cuts.”

But rivers are resilient. Fifteen years ago, says Sullivan, a sturgeon would only be caught dead in the sewage-sullied North Saskatchewan River, where scientists now track a sizable population. Create the right conditions and “these rivers,” says Sullivan, “will cure themselves damn quick.”

laurie hunt and debbie webb in the sturgeon riverThe heart of the community

From Hunt’s perspective, however, “Progress is slow.” As a St. Albert resident since 2003, she’s particularly passionate. She sees the river as many in the area do: as something that should positively reflect, or even define, the character of the city.

“It’s the heart of our community,” says Leah Kongsrude.

“It has historical significance. Father [Albert] Lacombe picked this location because it had access to water for irrigation, transportation, fish and wildlife. St. Albert people have a real connection with the Sturgeon River, so as they have concerns about [its] health, they have a very emotional response.”

Hunt and Webb hope to capitalize on that response.

The sturgeon, then, is the perfect poster-fish, easily rallied around for its unique size, longevity, prehistoric armour. Or almost perfect. Even Hunt is uncertain of her group’s ability to bring it back. Kongsrude claims a juvenile sturgeon was caught in the river about a decade ago. Sullivan takes a why-not view.

Owen Watkins (Biological Sciences Technology ’95), who tracks North Saskatchewan River populations for the province, never encountered one when he fished and snorkelled in the Sturgeon as a kid. “It would be a wonderful story if that happened,” he says, his tone suggestive of a likelihood on par with that of kids sighting one from the banks, decades back.

It may not actually matter if it comes back. In fact, it may not matter even if it ever lived within St. Albert city limits, keeping instead to the eastern mouth of the watershed that meets the North Saskatchewan. The sturgeon, Hunt and Webb know, is a symbol of potential.

For residents, that could just as easily be realized in the form of a clean, flowing stream all summer long, an afternoon spent hooking walleye and goldeye, kids splashing and swimming in chest-high water. And it would mean that patch behind the ball diamond, and others like it, grown up and arching over the water. Progress may seem slow, but it’s begun.

“We started off trying to figure out what the problems are,” says Hunt. “Now we want to start facing them.”

The residents of St. Albert may not need the Sturgeon River the way they once did as farmers (who still do in other parts of the watershed), but the need is likely strong enough for Hunt and Webb to succeed, sturgeon or no.

“There’s so much desire among people who live in the watershed,” says Webb. “With that desire, there’s definitely hope.”

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