New Project Maps Important Areas for Watershed Health

Is all land equal when it comes to water? The simple answer is no. In a watershed, some areas of the landscape “punch above their weight”, helping to store more water, filter water, or regulate flows. Understanding the location of these “hydrologically significant areas” is a key part of the watershed management puzzle. To meaningfully address challenges ranging from water supply in times of drought to drinking water quality – we need to understand where these areas are.

A new project led by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in partnership with the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) has mapped hydrologically significant areas in the Red Deer River watershed and created a user-friendly, online mapping tool to explore watershed features.

The Red Deer River watershed is vast and is home to more than 300,000 people, including the cities of Red Deer and Brooks, and many other urban and rural municipalities. Different landscapes across the Red Deer River watershed benefit the health of the land in different ways. When looking at the watershed from a large scale, it is important to identify the areas that provide natural benefits, such as purifying and regulating water flow. 

Launched in 2019, this mapping project used open-source spatial data, which is accessible to everyone, to identify areas in the Red Deer River watershed that, if conserved, would benefit water quality, flood mitigation and drought resiliency. The project engaged stakeholders from various sectors, developed a new report (Prioritizing Hydrologically Significant Natural Assets), and created a new, easy-to-use interactive online map portal.

HSA stakeholder engagement workshop, September 2019.

The online portal is designed to be a decision-support tool for a variety of conservation and development activities. Examples of how the maps can be used include: 

  • Identifying lands that stewardship groups or land trusts may want to target for land conservation
  • Supporting municipal and provincial land-use planning
  • Providing a starting point for more in-depth discussions about water and land management
  • Exploring key features in the watershed, and key data layers (e.g., precipitation, groundwater recharge). 
Explore the interactive maps online here .

This mapping portal will be an important tool for land-use decisions, as approximately 30 percent of the area mapped in the Red Deer River watershed is of moderate to high hydrological significance. These areas stretch across both pristine wilderness and working landscapes. (Note: Areas within Banff National Park were not assessed due to lack of available data.)

Increasingly, local communities and stakeholders are interested in land-use planning and development that supports not only socio-economic prosperity but also overall watershed health and resilience. Understanding and protecting HSAs is a key strategy for ensuring we have safe, secure water supplies and healthy, resilient ecosystems. The new online mapping portal is designed to better help people understand landscapes from a hydrological perspective and to support decisions related to land-use planning, development and conservation. 

For Josée Méthot, Executive Director of the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA), the project was also an opportunity to develop a tool to help partners from across sectors. “This project has helped spur conversations about how to balance conservation and development to protect watershed health. We hope that people will use the online portal to think about the landscape and potential activities in the Red Deer River watershed through a water lens.”

The RDRWA and NCC are thrilled to have partnered on this important project and hope that this new resource will help community members and municipalities better understand and protect landscapes that provide critical hydrological services, and help conserve natural areas that support the resilience of our local communities and ecosystems in the face of future flood and drought events for years to come. 

For more information on the Hydrologically Significant Areas project or the online mapping portal, please visit, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s website, or contact the RDRWA’s office directly.