Autumn is casting its signature hue across the Rockies. As tourists flock to its peaks and valleys to witness the splendor of one season dying and another beginning, others are zeroing in with great concern on the shrinking rivers.
“Stream flows on the Bow River are at the lowest ever recorded in some places including Calgary,” said Dr. John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures with the University of Saskatchewan.
“These rivers enter Lake Diefenbaker which, in Saskatchewan, provide water for over 60 per cent of the province’s population,” said Pomeroy. “It is now three metres below normal.”
The hottest summer on record caused life-altering wildfires, devastating crop yields and forced water restrictions in many jurisdictions including Calgary. At the source of crucial waterways, there’s been historic glacial melt.
Pomeroy said the Athabasca glacier down-wasted nine metres, the largest melt ever measured. He said the ground in some parts of the mountains is “bone dry.” They even witnessed dust storms in the alpine.
“This year we didn’t get the rains, we had the reduced snowpack and early melt, so this is actually worse than the worst-case scenario that we had been predicting for the end of the century, so it’s a tremendous concern to have a year like this occurring in 2023,” said Pomeroy.
Those who rely on the Bow River for both business and pleasure are noticing the dropping levels.
“It’s pretty low. There are places we just can’t get into, so yeah, it affects it,” said Nick Schlachter with Wapiti Sports. “We need snow in the Rockies. That’s what helps the system for sure.”
Canmore Kayaker Lawrence Nyman decided to pack up his season early because of the drastic drop in the water level.
“The river is so low that there are spots that become multi-braided channels that you ground out, it’s disappointing,” said Nyman from the banks of the Bow in Canmore.
The constantly changing landscape exacerbated by the changing climate has some well-known alpinists raising awareness and encouraging environmental stewardship.
Renowned alpinist Jim Elzinga is entering his 50th season of ice climbing. He admits a lot has changed in the past five decades altering where they can go in the sport he helped birth.
“A lot of the new routes that I’ve done over the decades no longer exist because the ice has disappeared, I find that quite sad,” said Elzinga, who started a non-profit Guardians of The Ice to raise awareness about disappearing crucial landscapes.
“These glaciers and ice faces are just becoming big pieces of rock,” he said.
Dr. Pomeroy is calling the deficit of water in rivers like the Bow River a national emergency that can’t be ignored.
“They may not feel it in Ottawa because they had rain this summer,” said Pomeroy.
“We are in unchartered territory for water management, and we have to do more than just simple water restrictions,” he urged.
“We need to look at how much we expand our irrigation, how much more efficient our irrigation can be,” said Pomeroy. “And I dare say we might need to look at re-portioning water in the province.”
Pomeroy said it’s going to take a record year of snowfall and rain to quell the crisis and even that might not be enough. He added it’s an El Nino year which typically brings dry and warmer conditions. More than halfway through September, the Three Sisters are glistening with a fresh dusting of snow — many in the mountain town are hopeful there will be a lot more on the way.