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The Bow River in the Rocky Mountains and winds through the Alberta foothills onto the prairies where it meets the Oldman River, the two then forming the South Saskatchewan River. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
The Bow River in the Rocky Mountains and winds through the Alberta foothills onto the prairies where it meets the Oldman River, the two then forming the South Saskatchewan River. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

fifth in a series

Protecting the health of Alberta’s Bow River Add to ...

Here, beside the Bow River, it is possible to see for a century.

In a special room at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, an exhibition called “Legacy in Time” features the landscape photographs of the Vaux family – 100 years apart.

In the years leading up to the First World War, Philadelphia siblings Mary Vaux, George Vaux IX and William S. Vaux spent their holidays photographing glaciers throughout the Canadian mountain range. A century later, George’s grandson, Henry Vaux, Jr., began shooting the same scenes for comparison.

Bow Glacier, 1902, Vaux Family Fonds.

The black and white photographs, all shot from the exact location of the originals, are nonetheless dramatically, even alarmingly different. Yoho Glacier, Illecillewaet Glacier, Bow Glacier and other ice fields seem vast beyond imagination in the Victorian-era photographs, little more than ice cubes by comparison in the modern pictures.

Bow Glacier, which lies beyond Lake Louise, seems particularly shrunken, though it still contributes to the Bow River, especially in late summer when the winter snowpack has long since melted and, in a year like this – two years after the floods of 2013 – rains have been minimal.

Bow Glacier, 2002, Henry Vaux Jr.

The Bow is wide, green and clear as it slides past the Whyte Museum and under the bridge leading to the world-famous Banff Springs resort. It picks up speed and, a short hike downstream from the hotel, cascades over spectacular Bow Falls into a long stretch of tumbling water that is the delight of rafters, kayakers and whitewater canoeists. The river twists and falls through a wilderness of soaring peaks, pine and larch before reaching the first of several dams. By the time the glacial waters reach the river’s end nearly 600 kilometres to the east, the Bow will have been paddled in and fished in. The city of Calgary will drink its waters and flush its waters. It will flow through the First Nations reserves of the Siksika, Tsuu T’ina and Nakoda, as well as through small towns and over rolling prairie pasture and farmland. It will have created massive dams and hydroelectricity and provide enough irrigation to make southern Alberta possible.

This river, called Minisniwapta in the Stoney (Nakoda) language, was a favourite subject of Group of Seven painters A.Y. Jackson and Frank H. Johnston. Johnston so loved the river that he claimed the scenery from Calgary to Banff “leaves one dumb.”

The Bow is the closest Canadian rivers have to a celebrity, having starred with Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return, in Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman and Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt.

If times have changed since Ms. Monroe struck that famous pose with those two Canadian icons – a Mountie and a canoe – it is nothing compared to the changes at the river source, where a once-vast glacier may soon look more like a child’s ice cream fallen on a summer sidewalk.

A 2015 study by the journal Nature Geoscience predicted that 70 per cent of glacier ice in Alberta and British Columbia could disappear by 2100 – perhaps as high as 90 per cent in the Alberta Rockies that feed rivers such as the Bow.

Years ago, when E.J. (Ted) Hart was director of the Whyte Museum, he acquired the original Vaux pictures that were on display this summer and early fall alongside the more recent Vaux photographs. “Everything comes back to the river,” Mr. Hart, now retired, said on a recent return to the museum. “The river was the reason for everything – the hotel, the town – even for the CPR choosing the Bow River pass – now called Kicking Horse – for passage over the mountains.”

He says people should take special note of what the century-apart photographs of the Bow Glacier are saying: “It tells a story and it foretells a story – this river isn’t going to exist forever.”

Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail

‘Rivers had to be broken’

Two squirrels are headed out fishing on Ghost Lake.

This is not the beginning of a long joke. Brendan Palmer is an arborist, and the 25-year-old Calgarian has temporarily adopted “Squirrel 1” and “Squirrel 2” until the orphans mature enough to be returned to nature. He carries them in a small backpack so he can keep up their regular feedings even on a day off.

The Bow River is a renowned recreational fishery, in no small part because of the nutrients found in the waters below Calgary. Rainbow and brown trout are large and feisty, but cutthroat trout are also found and the threatened bull trout is showing signs of making a comeback thanks to stringent fishing restrictions. Hollywood actor Sam Elliott has said he knows of no equal flyfishing treasure in the United States.

Mr. Palmer prefers to troll for trout from his boat, and on a holiday weekend he and the two squirrels join hundreds of other Albertans launching their boats in the various lakes that have been created in the Bow watershed through damming. Ghost Lake, formed in the late 1920s, is one of the more popular. In total, there are 13 dams, four weirs and eight reservoirs in what is, by far, the most-regulated river system in the province, likely the country. It’s understandable why Alberta’s favourite wilderness writer, the late Andy Russell, would call the Bow a “multiple-abuse” river.

The many dams, not surprisingly, have critics. Wildly fluctuating water levels below a huge dam like the Ghost, for example, play havoc with fish reproduction and survival.

Mr. Palmer, who studied environmental leadership and ecotourism at college, appreciates this but also appreciates the reality of a river that has been used for everything from buffalo hunts to timber runs, that has been twisted, re-routed, dammed, tapped and drained – yet somehow remains the Bow River as it pushes eastward and joins the Oldman River. Its used and reused waters eventually reach Lake Winnipeg via the Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay via the Nelson River.

As a metaphor for prairie persistence, the Bow sets the standard.

“We’re all opposed to change at one time or another,” Mr. Palmer says. “I wouldn’t like to see any more dams put up, but the ones that we do have here we might as well make use of the recreational facilities. This is my freedom. It’s where I come to relax.”

Had there been no Bow River, the settlement of Southern Alberta and the building of the city of Calgary would never have happened.

When Captain John Palliser led his pre-Confederation scientific expedition to explore the prairies, he concluded “this was not a place where humans could live and prosper.”

All that changed with the coming of the railroad that was promised to British Columbia for joining the Dominion in 1871. The original plan had been to cross the Rockies through the Yellowhead Pass, near Jasper, but the Canadian Pacific Railway chose instead the more southerly route, which reached Calgary in the summer of 1883.

The Bow River winds its way through downtown Calgary. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

As the CPR’s agreement with the government was for 25 million acres of land “fairly fit for settlement,” the selection of land became an issue. William Pearce, the federal inspector of lands agencies, was able to convince the railway that the open lands of the southern prairies could be made fertile through irrigation, and the Bow River watershed would supply that precious water.

Pearce, a stubborn, often-belligerent man nicknamed the Czar of Western Canada, was prescient. His own land, Pearce Estate, southeast of Calgary, was devoted to experimental methods. He was also a great believer in urban parks and is the reason so much of the Bow remains accessible even as it winds and twists through the city core.

And Calgarians clearly love their river. “We fish on the Bow, paddleboard and canoe and kayak on the Bow,” says Calgary aquatic biologist Francine Forrest. “When I see the river, it just brings me happiness. It’s a ‘vacation’ from the busyness of the city.”

Beyond the city, the river goes back to work, now producing crops more than power. While less than 5 per cent of Alberta land is irrigated, it provides some 20 per cent of agriculture production. The land that Palliser thought unfit for settlement is fertile and valuable, largely thanks to the Bow River. By 1915, Scientific American magazine was calling Pearce’s realized dream “America’s Greatest Irrigation Project.”

A cyclist rides down at pathway along side the Bow River west of downtown Calgary. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

“The irrigation history of the Bow is one of the great industrial projects of Canada’s history,” says Mr. Hart, who has written several histories of the area of the Bow watershed. “It created an economy out of an area that was considered useless.”

With the railway came a need for coal, the town of Canmore springing up around the mines that opened up to fuel the trains. With Calgary booming, timber was required for construction of homes as well as for railway ties as the CPR pushed on to the West Coast. Investors from Wisconsin formed the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co., the final log drive down the river to Calgary coming in 1943.

In 1909, the Horseshoe Falls were dammed to generate hydroelectricity, and two years later Calgary Power – backed by Montreal financier Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, and with future prime-minister R.B. Bennett as negotiator – began to further dam most of the waterfalls on the Bow and its tributaries. Bow Falls, one of the province’s top tourist attractions, was fortunately spared.

It was the thinking of the times. “Like wild stallions,” Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden and H.V. Nelles wrote in The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow, “rivers had to be broken, domesticated, made docile and useful.”

“The Bow has formed the backbone of Alberta’s history,” says Mr. Hart. “You might not call it a great river, but it has a great history.”

Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail

‘The fat lady has already sung’

In early September, the Bow River Basin Council gathered in Calgary to discuss the multiple concerns of this remarkable watershed. They met in a large room at TransAlta Corp., the modern name for Calgary Power. The council’s mandate is sustainability, a word of enormous and complicated meaning when applied to something with as many competing strings attached as the Bow River.

“Slow the hell down!” lawyer Judy Stewart, a former mayor of nearby Cochrane, warned developers.

As Calgary has boomed, it has spread westward as wealthy homeowners build ever-larger homes with, they hope, a view of the mountains. Development now nears the reservoirs that supply the area drinking water, and each year more and more ecologically valuable wetlands vanish under fill and pavement.

“The city of Calgary has destroyed 90 per cent of pre-settlement wetlands,” Stewart says.

A struggling economy, of course, is going to halt some of the development, but a larger concern is the water itself, from the melting of Bow Glacier to the irrigation of fields near Medicine Hat.

“The most important resource in the province, and the rarest, is water,” says Kevin Van Tighem, former superintendent of Banff National Park.

Mr. Van Tighem, author of a new book on the Bow River called Heart Waters, worries that infrastructure changes such as dams or more efficient irrigation usage is equivalent to “closing the barn door after the horses have left,” and he is hardly alone.

The Bow River near Lake Louise runs along side Canadian Pacific rail lines. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

“Water comes to the river,” he argues. “It doesn’t come from the river.”

Clear-cut forestry causes quick runoff, as does the pounding and rutting of the landscape by off-road vehicles. Scientists such as John Pomeroy, who spoke to the council gathering, say that climate change is causing snow melts to come earlier and earlier, meaning water is racing through the system before it is needed for planting and reduced, at times sharply, when it is most needed. Glacier melt, says Dr. Pomeroy, is no longer a significant factor later in the growing season.

Despite the havoc of the 2013 floods that struck Canmore, Calgary and High River with such vengeance, causing more than $5-billion in damages, Dr. Pomeroy and other scientists fear that the West of Canada, like California, has entered a period of higher temperatures, little rain and drought conditions.

Dr. Pomeroy, who is a Canmore resident and holds the Canada Research Chair on Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, believes the Bow “is an example of a river leaving the Ice Age. “It’s sort of like the opera – the fat lady has already sung,” he says.

There have been vast improvements on the Bow. Irrigation is far, far more efficient today than it was when huge concrete viaducts – now standing like forgotten dinosaurs near the town of Brooks – carried water that was subjected to evaporation, leakage and debris plugging.

Also, the city of Calgary has profoundly improved its water treatment facilities following years of complaints from communities downstream. Interestingly, it was a crusading journalist named Ralph Klein who first drew public attention to the troublesome water conditions. He later became mayor of the city, provincial minister of the environment and premier.

It was when Mr. Klein was environment minister that routine water samples from the Bow as it flowed into Calgary found large globules of pentachlorophenol and creosote. Tabbed “The Blob,” the discovery sent shudders throughout the Bow watershed. Mr. Klein established the Bow River Quality Council, ensuring that municipalities, First Nations, farmers and recreation users all had a voice.

A sail boat on Ghost Lake Reservoir west of Cochrane, Albert. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

That, of course, hardly means they sing from the same page. The Bow remains a subject of much controversy in the province.

Recent work completed by World Wildlife Fund Canada found that the Bow scored “poor” in terms of overall health of the watershed, “fair” for water quality and “good” for fish health. As far as threats to the watershed, the conclusion was “very high” given the overuse of its waters, the continuing pollution from agriculture practices and the potential for pipeline incidents.

“The Bow River is beautiful, and important culturally, historically and economically,” said David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto who is now head of WWF-Canada. “While it is the most regulated river in Alberta, the risks facing it were not well known. After our assessment we found that over all, the Bow River is at a high risk. We need to start raising awareness about these issues.”

“I don’t think it’s an example of an efficiently well-managed river by any means,” says Robert Sandford, Canadian chair of a United Nations initiative that advocates long-term protection for water quality. “If drought conditions continue,” warns Mr. Sandford, “agriculture could be in decline.”

Dr. Pomeroy also believes the Bow has to be managed more efficiently. The 2013 devastation was called the Flood of the Century, but he says this is a “deception” – as at least twice in the previous century there were greater floods.

“Downtown Calgary,” he says, “should never have been put where it is.” But since downtown Calgary will remain where the Bow and Elbow rivers converge, better planning, monitoring and preparation will be required in the years to come. “We must be better at managing water better,” he says, “and avoiding another event like the 2013 flood.”

It is not only infrastructure that is required, in Dr. Pomeroy’s opinion, but thinking. Climate change is bringing vast changes, potentially in every direction from drought to flood, and yet so many people and politicians seem in denial.

“We built Canada on water,” Dr. Pomeroy says. “The fur trade, industry, agriculture – and yet we take it all for granted. We’re going to struggle if we don’t pay attention to it. In part, we need to stop describing our water as ‘bountiful.’

“I’m not so sure it is anymore.”

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