Environmental Loss at the Springbank Offstream Reservoir Area

Do you love our landscapes? You are not alone:  in 2016 the Calgary area accounted for 67% (2.7 million) visits to the Canadian Rockies. That same year the Elbow Falls/Prairie Mtn area recorded 689,850 visits and West Bragg Creek Provincial Park recorded 160,000 visits despite construction closures. That’s 3,560,000 visits to our wild lands just counting the places we have numbers for; more than 2 visits for each person in the greater Calgary area. We obviously value this rare place of beauty on Earth.

For many of us in the Calgary area, the wild lands of the Rockies and Foothills west of Calgary begin at Highway 22. Heading north from the Highway 8 roundabout to Highway 1, we often see deer, the Sibbald elk herd, and if we are lucky, grizzlies touring nearby prairie (Oct 2016 and June 2017). In the fall of 2017, many of us were moved by the injured and forlorn “Russell the bear” sitting in the field near the junction of Upper Springbank Road and Highway 8. 

The Sibbald elk herd and the “Russell” the black bear along highway 22 in 2018.

It turns out the area between the Elbow River and Jumpingpound Creek is both an important migration corridor and rich home for wildlife moving along the mixed habitats of foothills forests, water bodies and prairies to the east. These residents include Species at Risk like grizzlies, Swift Fox, Harlequin ducks, Peregrine Falcons, migrating Trumpeter Swans, Spragues Pipet and Leopard frogs (remember catching them as a child, you 60-year olds?). 

This important landscape and its wildlife residents will be lost to us, to our children and grandchildren if the proposed Springbank Offstream Reservoir project is completed. Approximately 3870 acres of Springbank Creek drainage and adjacent Elbow River plain will be within the project perimeter. The biggest effect on the environment will be repeated submergence of habitat during flood events and the silt residue following drainage of the reservoir.  In a “design flood” similar to the 2013 flood,  the flooded area will cover 2015 acres of habitat and silt deposits remaining after draining the reservoir will cover 580 acres, of which 452 acres will have more than 10cm-4m of silt (the area in yellow and reds below). The effects of flood silt on revegetation was dismissed as negligible by Alberta Department of Transportation in their response to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in May 2019. But the residents of Redwood Meadows can attest the silt stifles growth of grasses and forbs for 5 or more years. 

The area of the of the proposed Springbank Offstream Reservoir between Highway 8 and Highway 1 (left) and the calculated silt residue following a flood event (right). Each square is 160 acres. 

The change in habitat by construction and flooding at least every 5 years (to test the reservoir infrastructure) will make the habitat at Springbank often unusable and unreliable to both resident and migrating wildlife, and fish that get caught in the flooded reservoir. The loss of these Springbank pastures and brushlands will mean fewer animal neighbors trying to live near the city of Calgary, and a loss to the many that value these sightings which connect us to our home landscape. 

An example of habitat loss from human activity is at the alternative location for a flood (and drought) mitigation project, the McLean Creek area. The area south of the Elbow River along McLean Creek is an important recreational area for Off Highway Vehicle users and gun owners for target practice. The vehicle and gun noise in this area has made wildlife very scarce (see “hunting in 406 McLean Creek” Alberta Outdoorsmen Forum).  A preliminary survey of wildlife near the Allan Bill area showed only a few deer and one moose. Grizzlies, moose, goat, sheep and other wildlife in the area prefer the quieter slopes of Moose Mountain to the north of the Elbow River where they are regularly seen by mountain bikers, hikers, and Bragg Creekers, including myself. 

Every permanent loss of habitat in the Calgary area means fewer wild neighbors to share our landscape with, and a sense of decreasing value of this landscape that so many of us visit. Withdrawing the Springbank project means continued elk grazing along highways 22 and 1 on our way to the mountains and adding value at McLean with a permanent lake and surrounding shore. This lake will provide flood protection and reliable drinking water to all of us living downstream: grizzled seniors and grizzly bears. 

Dave Klepacki

Springbank Community Association