Riparian areas are productive and biologically-rich shorelines at the edges of streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. These hardworking ecosystems help to filter and store water, prevent erosion, provide habitat, and can offer protection in the face of flood and drought events.
Improving the management of riparian areas is a key strategy for improving water quality and mitigating floods and droughts in the Red Deer River watershed. This summer, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) completed a 2-year Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program-funded project: Targeting the Conservation and Restoration of Riparian Areas in the Medicine-Blindman Rivers Sub-Watersheds. This project is the first of its kind in the watershed to map riparian intactness (a measure of riparian condition) along 1,782 of kilometers of shoreline in the Medicine-Blindman Rivers subwatersheds, helping to fill a key data gap in watershed management. The project also directly supported core WRRP program goals relating to the conservation, restoration and enhancement of riparian areas, and increased local understanding of ecological connectivity and function, and water quality in critical areas of the Red Deer River watershed.
Riparian lands have substantial ecological, economic, and social value, and the effective management of these habitats is a critical component to the maintenance of overall watershed health. Despite the fact that riparian habitats provide a wide range of benefits to communities and the people who live there, the loss and impairment of riparian lands in Alberta has been significant, and recent watershed management efforts throughout the province have been focused on identifying priority areas for riparian restoration and habitat management. In order to effectively target conservation and restoration efforts and resources, however, the RDRWA first needed to obtain reliable baseline information about the location, condition, and function of riparian habitats within the Red Deer River watershed.
The RDRWA worked with Fiera Biological Consulting throughout 2020-2021 to map the intactness of riparian areas in the Medicine and Blindman Rivers watershed, which covers an area of approximately 5,800 km² and is located in the west central portion of the Red Deer River watershed. This HUC 6 (Hydrologic Unit Code) watershed is made up of three smaller HUC 8 subwatersheds, including the Medicine River, Blindman River, and the Red Deer River/Sylvan Lake subwatersheds. The Medicine-Blindman Rivers watershed was selected as the focus for this study because it is part of both the Lower Headwaters and Central Urbanizing Zones of the Red Deer River watershed, and these areas have been identified by the RDRWA as an important source water protection zone for the City of Red Deer. Additionally, the Medicine-Blindman Rivers watershed was identified as high priority for flood and drought mitigation by the provincial Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program (WRRP).
Riparian management areas (RMAs) located along shorelines of interest were evaluated using a desktop-based approach that utilizes a current land cover layer. An RMA is defined as an area adjacent to the shoreline that typically includes the near-shore emergent vegetation zone, the riparian zone, and a riparian protective (buffer) zone. For the purpose of this study, RMAs had a fixed width of 50 metres and a variable length that was determined based upon major breaks in the cover of natural vegetation. Intactness was used as the measure of riparian condition because the relationship between an intact riparian zone and the health or function of the aquatic environment is well established. Intact riparian zones play a vital role in the exchange of inorganic and organic material between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems via the interception of sediments and nutrients that runoff from adjacent upland habitats, and through the supply of leaf litter and woody debris. Intact riparian vegetation also regulates water temperature and the instream light environment, thereby ensuring suitable habitat for a range of aquatic species. Further, riparian habitats stabilize the banks of waterbodies and help modulate water velocities and high water events, thereby improving water quality and protecting surrounding lands from flooding. Given the significant role that an intact riparian zone has on providing ecosystem services and supporting healthy and functional aquatic ecosystems, there is a need to effectively manage riparian areas. As such, understanding the distribution of intact riparian habitat across the landscape and identifying areas where riparian intactness has been degraded is essential to improving conservation and management outcomes.
In addition to assessing riparian intactness, natural and anthropogenic pressure within local catchments was evaluated to identify riparian areas that may be functionally impaired due to surrounding land use. As a result, each RMA was assigned an intactness and pressure score, and these scores were combined using a prioritization matrix that assigns a conservation or restoration priority to each RMA. This in turn allows land managers to more precisely target areas for management, as well as prioritize areas for conservation and restoration within the watershed. It also allows land managers to target areas where more detailed, site-specific field assessments of riparian health or condition may be required. In total, 35 waterbodies within the watershed were assessed and 38% of the shoreline (670 km) was classified as High Intactness, with an additional 22% of the shoreline (391 km) classified as Moderate Intactness. Just over one third of the shoreline was classified as Very Low Intactness (33%; 581 km), with the remaining 8% (140 km) classified as Low Intactness.
This project has generated essential scientific information that can be used as the basis for the development and implementation of an evidence-based framework for adaptively managing riparian areas within the Medicine-Blindman Rivers watershed. Through the commissioning of this study, the RDRWA and its stakeholders now have an important foundation of scientific evidence upon which to target restoration and conservation activities that will improve drought and flood resilience in the watershed. The next step in the advancement of meaningful riparian management and conservation in the watershed will be to formalize a framework for action that includes a consideration of the current conditions and defining achievable outcomes and measurable targets, which can then be used to inform relevant collective action by key stakeholders. These actions can then be monitored on a regular basis to provide an evaluation of outcomes that feed into an adaptive and reflexive approach to riparian management through time.
This project was also foundational in assisting the RDRWA and our stakeholders increase our collective understanding of the context for flood and drought resilience efforts in central Alberta. In addition to enabling the RDRWA to develop a solid baseline of riparian mapping data in the Medicine-Blindman Rivers sub-watersheds, this project also modernized the way that RDRWA engages with elected officials, community members and key stakeholders on riparian health and management issues. We developed a professional short film called Measuring What Matters about riparian areas in the Red Deer River watershed, supported by engagement with scientists, municipal leaders, ranchers, and farmers. The film will launch later in the fall, and we hope it will spark dialogue and action around riparian health and conservation, and enhance water literacy across Alberta and beyond.
In conjunction with this project, we also developed three companion short films about key topics in the watershed: 1) gravel-bed rivers; 2) climate change and streamflows; and 3) municipal planning. These resources will help fill a gap in riparian and water-related educational materials in central Alberta, and elsewhere in the province.
This project also brought together a multi-sector Municipal Steering Committee to discuss key water-related messages, and engagement and communications strategies. Overall, dozens of people contributed to RDRWA’s Targeting the Conservation and Restoration of Riparian Areas in the Medicine-Blindman Rivers Subwatersheds project directly, and we expect this work will reinvigorate discussions about water and watershed management in central Alberta, raise awareness in the broader public, and attract new people to participate in riparian and watershed-related initiatives. The RDRWA also developed a digital engagement strategy to support the ongoing rollout of project deliverables to the community throughout 2021-2022, with a focus on engaging municipal partners, media, educational institutions, and the public.
Media coverage of the RDRWA’s WRRP-funded project in the Medicine-Blindman Rivers sub-watershed increased throughout 2020-2022, helping to increase community awareness about key watershed topics, support cross-sector efforts around riparian conservation and restoration, raise water literacy, and to attract more people to become involved in learning about riparian areas, natural assets and watershed management.
As a science-based organization, we understand that research, planning, and engagement are a foundational part of effective watershed management. This project is part of a longer-term strategy to inform planning and stewardship efforts by multiple partners. In an effort to better manage riparian habitats within the Red Deer River watershed, the RDRWA is currently working on two parallel projects to map 5,285 km of riparian shoreline within the Lower Headwaters and Central Agricultural Zones of the Red Deer River watershed, which includes the Buffalo, Kneehills, Little Red Deer, and Threehills sub-watersheds, as well an upcoming riparian mapping project in the Rosebud, Raven and Michichi subwatersheds. We will continue to work with key partners to identify potential on-the-ground projects and to raise awareness about riparian areas and other natural assets in 2022-2023.
In addition to the RDRWA’s previous study of the Medicine-Blindman Rivers sub-watersheds, the RDRWA recently released the results of our new technical report for this new project. The report provides essential information to municipalities and other partners to help spatially target the conservation and restoration of riparian areas. Specifically, the report helps assess the intactness (condition) of riparian shorelines, recognizing that intact riparian areas provide protection in the face of flood and drought risks. The report also includes data summaries for major counties within the study area.
Results of the technical mapping work will be uploaded to a publicly accessible Riparian Web Portal being developed by Alberta’s Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils and key partners. Ongoing presentations and training opportunities for municipal planning staff and elected officials are also being offered in partnership with the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA), Battle River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) and the RDRWA throughout 2022 and 2023.
Finally, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance would like to acknowledge that this project would not have been possible without the financial support of the Government of Alberta. The Government of Alberta contributed to the delivery of this project through the Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program (WRRP), which aims to restore or enhance previously degraded priority areas within Alberta’s watersheds, including riparian areas. Additionally, the Government of Alberta provided spatial data that was essential for the successful completion of this project.
The RDRWA would also like to thank Fiera Biological Consulting for their invaluable assistance with the technical portions of this project. Thank you as well to all of the members of the Municipal Steering Committee for your participation in this project. We could not have done it without your support!
For more information, please visit www.rdrwa.ca and stay tuned for details of our upcoming film launch and riparian webinar later in 2022.