New Film “Source Waters” Shines Spotlight on the Red Deer River Watershed

Where does our water come from? How much do we have? How do we communicate about land and water issues more effectively? 

A new documentary film project led by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) aims to answer these questions, raise awareness about the Red Deer River watershed, and highlight water and land issues in central Alberta. 

Filmed in late 2020, Source Waters: The Rivers That Shape Us provides essential context for those wanting to learn more about the landscapes, communities, and waters of the Red Deer River watershed. Starting in the mountainous headwaters of the Red Deer River in Banff National Park, the documentary takes viewers on a west to east journey across the watershed, through communities including Sundre, Red Deer, and east to the Special Areas, just shy of the Saskatchewan border. Along the way, the RDRWA talked to scientists, elected officials, ranchers and agricultural producers about the “big picture,” of the watershed, and to learn more about what issues are most important to them. 

RDRWA film crew descending Deception Pass on horseback en route to the Skoki Valley, Banff National Park.

A watershed-scale approach

The Red Deer River watershed is vast, covering an area of 49,650 km2, and is home to over 300,000 people and 54 urban municipalities, including the cities of Red Deer and Brooks. The watershed also includes 20 specialized municipalities, over 13,000 farms, and a diverse range of industries. Maintaining and improving watershed health across this busy landscape requires everyone to play their part, but many areas are facing a convergence of growth pressures and water management issues. 

The Red Deer River watershed is part of the larger South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB), which also includes the Bow, Oldman, and South Saskatchewan sub-basins. It is also in the unique position of being the only sub-basin in the SSRB still open to new surface water allocations (with some exceptions). As various sectors and communities grapple with growth in the context of limited water supplies, the Red Deer River watershed is increasingly a key topic of conversation. 

Land-use patterns in the basin are also changing, with approximately 62% of the basin’s land base covered by human footprint. According to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, human footprint describes the visible alteration or conversion of native ecosystems to residential, recreational, agricultural, or industrial landscapes. For example, a 2014 study by the Alberta Land Institute found that within the Edmonton-Calgary corridor area, urban areas increased by 50% (1600 km2) between 1984 and 2013, and agricultural farmland in the region has become increasingly fragmented (Haarsma, 2016). These changes in land-use can, in turn, affect key water quality and water quantity outcomes at the heart of watershed management. 

The Red Deer River basin’s status as a water-constrained basin, coupled with increasing growth in various sectors and changing land-use patterns, requires a thoughtful and coordinated approach to watershed management. As one of 11 provincial Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs), a key role of the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance is to act as a multi-sector forum, providing people and organizations with the knowledge and tools they require to make well-informed decisions regarding land and water issues in central Alberta.  

Municipalities are key partners in watershed management, yet face a growing set of challenges. Many municipalities in the Red Deer River watershed have experienced flood and drought events in recent years, and many areas in the basin are considered at high risk for future flood and drought events. For municipalities, a changing climate and increasing hydrological variability can pose challenges to the provision of core municipal services, especially at a time when many municipalities face a fiscal crunch. The RDRWA has listened to the concerns of our partner municipalities, and we are working together to find ways to balance the need for effective planning and conservation in tandem with growth and development. 

To move the dial on protecting local communities in the face of these challenges, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance recognizes we need to do a better job of reaching municipal decision-makers and community members and supporting the everyday conversations and decisions that take place related to water and land-use – whether it is a farmer protecting a wetland, a citizen taking a shorter shower, or a municipality investing in green infrastructure. Everyone has a role to play in watershed management – but somehow many of us are still disconnected from the role we play in the bigger system. 

A comprehensive assessment of water literacy conducted by the Alberta Water Council (2016) found that low water literacy is a risk that may result in a disengaged public who are unaware of patterns of water availability and quality and how this may influence their lives (AWC, 2016). The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance believes that part of the reason for this disengagement stems back to how we frame key water issues, especially with respect to values and messaging and how we reach out to audiences in an increasingly fast-paced media environment. We know that stories have power. Research suggests that audiences find stories and narratives easier to understand and more engaging than traditional logical-scientific communication (Dahlstrom, 2014). While scientific facts are important, we know that facts by themselves do not motivate concern or action. Recognizing that many people find water a complex topic to understand and engage with, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance decided to try a more accessible approach to communicating about water in order to help people connect with watershed issues.

The Red Deer River near Empress, Alberta.

By land, by water, by horse 

When the RDRWA started planning to film Source Waters in 2020, we expected there would be a learning curve and some challenges along the way. But we had no idea that we would have to adapt to filming a documentary in the midst of the global Coronavirus pandemic! Armed with a COVID-19 filming plan, our weight in hand sanitizer, and a healthy dose of flexibility and good humour, we set out with our intrepid director, Eric Gonzalez, and film crew to visit gems across the watershed.

To do justice to the story of the Red Deer River watershed, we knew we had to start at the source. The true headwaters of the Red Deer River are a place few people have visited. Water in the Red Deer River watershed originates in the Skoki Valley of Banff National Park, before travelling downstream through communities including Sundre, Red Deer, and Drumheller. The RDRWA and our film crew travelled to the remote headwaters of the Red Deer River in Banff National Park in late August, traversing rugged terrain on horseback to reach Red Deer Lakes and faraway Oyster Lake. After riding, hiking, and scrambling with cameras, “dead cats” (a high-definition microphone), and other assorted equipment, we finally crested the summit of Oyster Peak and reached the tranquil turquoise waters of its namesake lake. For RDRWA staff Josée Méthot and Rosemarie Ferjuc, it was a true “watershed moment”, watching some of the crystal clear source waters of the Red Deer River emerge from the rock. It was amazing to think about the connectivity of our water cycle; about how drops of water spilling from a wall of rock can eventually wind across Alberta and Saskatchewan, hydrating the prairies en route to Hudson Bay. 

Despite the bumps of bushwhacking, it was an indelible experience for all involved, and veteran outfitter Paul Peyto of Timberline Tours reflected that “Oyster Lake has not changed a bit since the last time I was there in 1967.” 

  RDRWA’s Josée Méthot at the source of the Red Deer River.

In subsequent weeks, the film crew followed the course of the Red Deer River, stopping in the communities of Sundre, the City of Red Deer, Starland County, and Special Areas and travelling by car, by truck, by quad, by canoe, by ferry and on foot to reach some of the most unique landscapes of the watershed. We are grateful to everyone we met along the way who helped answer our questions, helped us way-find when we were lost, and most importantly, helped us get to the heart of the stories that embody the spirit of the people and places of the Red Deer River watershed.

Traversing boulder fields with film equipment en route to Oyster Lake.

It takes a village. 

Water connects us all. From the braided waters near Sundre, to the starkly beautiful and dry badlands. From the suburbs of Red Deer (population 103,000), to the dusty main street of Rowley (population 8). No matter what lens you view water through, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance hopes that Source Waters:The Rivers That Shape Us will inspire new conversations about water, and give our municipal decision-makers and our communities a true sense of where our water comes from, how much we have, and profile challenges and opportunities moving forward.

As interviewee Dr. John Pomeroy, Director of the Global Water Futures Program (the largest water research program in the world) told the RDRWA, “There will be tremendous challenges moving forward, but we have a great tradition in western Canada of finding solutions.”

Interviewing Dr. John Pomeroy, Director of the Global Water Futures Program for Source Waters.

Want to learn more? The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance held a virtual launch of “Source Waters: The Rivers That Shape Us” on World Water Day, March 22, 2021. You can watch Source Waters on YouTube – click here to view the film.  

The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance is thankful to have this project supported through funding from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, Red Deer and District Community Foundation, Dow Canada and Rocky View County, each of whose support has been instrumental in helping the RDRWA bring the Stories of the Watershed to life, and realise the vision for this project.