Watershed Planning in Alberta Watersheds

In Alberta, effective watershed management is critical to ensuring flood and drought resiliency within the province. Improving flood and drought resiliency through enhanced watershed management practices has been an ongoing concern in Alberta since the initial development of Alberta’s Water for Life (2003) strategy which spurred action among communities and stakeholders across the province to initiate watershed management planning, each with their own approach. In Alberta, Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) are important stewards of Alberta’s major watersheds. They are independent, non-profit organizations that are designated by Alberta Environment and Parks to report on the health of our watersheds, lead collaborative planning, and facilitate education and stewardship activities. WPACs engage representatives of key stakeholders in the river basin area, including municipal, provincial and federal governments; industrial sectors; conservation groups; Indigenous communities; academia; and the public. In their work, they seek consensus on land and water resource management strategies that support the achievement of shared environmental, social, and economic outcomes for the watershed. Within Alberta there are currently 11 WPACs representing the major river basins. Each WPAC is responsible for developing a State of the watershed report, which is expected to inform the development of Integrated Watershed Management Plans (IWMP), which provide the foundation for developing effective management strategies to meet watershed goals. The province developed its Guide to Watershed Management Planning in Alberta which is a framework that can be used by the WPACs in developing their IWMPs. Actions are individual to each region; local actions are listed on each WPAC website. Land use pressures, water quantity and quality, complex organic compounds in water and sediment, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species are the leading drivers of watershed degradation; climate change will exacerbate many of these existing pressures, highlighting the need to integrate land management strategies to safeguard Alberta’s watersheds.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The state of the watershed report is one of the two key deliverables produced by WPACs. It describes the history of the watershed, its natural and built features, the condition of the resources, and the impact of human activity on the watershed. Given that, each state of the watershed report is unique to the watershed. State of the watershed reports are expected to inform the development of Integrated Watershed Management Plans (IWMP), providing a foundation of information for developing effective management strategies to meet watershed goals.

Using the Bow River Basin Watershed as an example, risks and pressures are defined for each sub-basin within the watershed. For example, risks and pressures have been identified for the Upper Bow Sub-Basin, which are outlined below. Although changes in land-use are not as significant as in more highly populated downstream sub-basins, some human activities do impact water quality and aquatic ecosystems. Further, climate change scenarios predict increased glacial melting, extreme weather events, as well as other changes that could produce new stresses and alterations to water quantity and quality, fish, wildlife, plant life, and forests in the sub-basin. Natural disturbance and stressors have long influenced the ecosystems within the Upper Bow Sub-Basin, including flooding or naturally occurring wildfires, which help in replenishing the ecosystem and play a key role in ecosystem function and structure. However, the watershed region has been subject to a variety of unnatural stressors since the 1880s and onward. Among addressing landscape fragmentation and loss of habitat connectivity, and many other key risks and pressures, climate change impacts and extreme weather, such as flooding and drought, are recognized as key risks. While there are risks and pressures facing the water systems in this sub-basin, there are water management and storage opportunities to improve environmental conditions. These opportunities could also provide additional protection against flood and drought.

Identifying Actions

Watershed Management Planning
IWMPs are the second key deliverable produced by Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs). These plans provide advice to governments and agencies that have policy and regulatory decision-making authority for land and resource management. Collaboration is central to the development of IWMPs, which are based on consensus agreement and inclusive participation of stakeholders and community representatives from within the watershed. Finalized in 2015, the Guide to Watershed Management Planning in Alberta provides advice on the steps to develop and implement a watershed management plan. The guide is based on the iterative process of adaptive management, from planning through to implementation and evaluation, and back to planning. WPACs are the main mechanism to foster this collaboration at the watershed level, creating opportunities for stakeholders to come together, share resources, and explore innovative solutions to water management challenges.

Example: Bow River Basin Watershed Management Plan
Watershed management planning in the Bow River Basin took a two phased approach. Phase One of the Bow Basin Watershed Management Plan (BBWMP) began in 2005 and focuses on surface water quality. The Plan was developed using an environmental performance management system to achieve surface water quality outcomes with associated timelines for management actions, research, monitoring and evaluation. In 2010, recognizing the need for a management tool that would align resource decisions across sectors and jurisdictions, the Bow River Basin Council (BRBC) initiated Phase Two of a watershed management plan for the Bow Basin to be prepared in collaboration with members, partners, and stakeholders. The purpose of the BBWMP is to provide “guidance and recommendations” to decision-making authorities, municipalities, natural resource managers and users and residents regarding land and water resources in the watershed. The watershed management plan has been led by the BRBC through the BBWMP Steering Committee Decision-makers will continue to work together toward implementing the BBWMP and achieving the plan’s outcomes and goals.


In continuing with the Bow River Basin Watershed example, actions are underway to assess economic and environmentally viable opportunities to use existing storage, and to expand existing on-stream storage in the headwaters and tributaries of the Bow River. The goal is to improve water management for many water uses, and to help resolve environmental and economic development issues downstream. It is also possible to maintain the viability of Banff National Park’s ecosystems, while offering opportunities for world-class tourism experiences. Parks Canada has implemented several measures to reduce detrimental effects on the local ecology. Some of these measures include: improved garbage management, an end to fish stocking, reclamation of disturbed sites such as gravel pits and dumps, closures of backcountry roads, temporary area closures to protect sensitive wildlife, restoration of several creeks, improved wastewater and sewage treatment in Banff townsite, and inter-jurisdictional cooperation in environmental management.

The BBWMP articulates 42 key strategies and actions to be taken by primary stakeholders in the WPACs, such as the Bow River Basin Council (BRBC), Bow Basin municipalities and First Nations, local environmental NGOs (i.e., Cows and Fish), the Government of Alberta, Parks Canada, Watershed Stewardship Groups, and research institutions. Some example actions include developing a performance management system to manage the landscape and evaluate progress, forming an implementation committee to provide assistance and advice to all proposed implementers, enhance coordination of land use decisions respecting the shared local community values as expressed in municipal development plans and land use bylaws, develop a process to conserve all hydrologically significant areas and areas of high biodiversity, identify strategies to help conserve hydrologically significant areas that are particularly vulnerable to land-use impacts, further research on ecosystem services for headwaters and other hydrologically significant areas, and further research on effective best management practices and ways to encourage their adoption.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Improved and expanded environmental and watershed monitoring and reporting is urgently needed to address critical data and information gaps (especially involving riparian areas and the impacts of small point-source and non-point sources of pollutants on water quality); additional monitoring presents new opportunities to improve the understanding and management of the Bow River within this region.

Enabling improved understanding of the current state of the watershed is the first step in developing an adaptive management framework to inform research, actions, and best practices to continually improve the health of the watershed. During the development of BRBC’s State of the Watershed tool, information gaps have been identified. Currently the “Conditions and Indicators” and “Risks and Pressures” sections contain knowledge gaps and, as a result, are missing some insights. With funding and program reductions to water monitoring programs across Alberta, the BRBC, and all Alberta WPACs and Watershed Stewardship Groups, there is a significant challenge to monitor and report on the health of our watersheds. In spite of these difficulties—and with the support of dedicated and volunteer-based members and organizations—the readily available indicator data has been identified, collected, analyzed, and incorporated into the BRBC website. The BRBC believes it is critically important to resolve and address gaps in water data and information in order to develop a strategic, systematic, and consistent approach toward the sustainable management of this watershed.

For the BRBW, an initial set of indicators have been selected to illustrate changes in the basin’s condition and stresses over time and to measure the organization’s progress toward meeting the objectives and outcomes of the Bow Basin Watershed Management Plan. Watershed Indicators are categorized by the watershed element they represent (i.e., water quantity, water quality, landscape, and biological community). The current state of each indicator is presented in detail on the BRBC website.

Next Steps

All watershed management plans, including the BBWMP, are intended to be living documents, which take an adaptive management approach. In this sense the process is iterative in that as new information becomes available, updates to the existing version of the watershed management plans should be considered. For the BBWMP specifically, all future phases of watershed management planning will include the work of previous phases with the goal of building a comprehensive integrated watershed management plan.

For example, in Phase One of the BBWMP, water quality objectives were not set for certain areas of the Bow River; however, as new information became available during Phase Two, new water quality objectives were set for various indicators. Changes were also made to water temperature indicators between Phase One and Phase Two of the BBWMP. Additionally, future Indicators have been identified for the Bow Basin Watershed, and include groundwater allocation and use, water licenses and transfers, agriculture intensity, urban intensity, wetlands, land use and cover, and total dissolved solids.