What is a Watershed? ...or: Cutting up the Landcape

(Editor's note: Our first blog posting of the new year! What better way to start things off than to contemplate what, exactly, a watershed is. Not everyone knows the answer .... do you?)

OWC conducted a survey that asked the public some general knowledge questions about our shared watershed. What we found is that this knowledge isn’t general at all. 9 people out of 10 could neither define the term watershed nor understand its relationship to their environments.
I have spent a long time since wondering why that is, pondering everything from our education system to immigration to urbanization to economics and beyond. I was reminded of a class I taught at the University of Hamburg on Human Geography, about how we connect with and understand our physical world. What maps and which worldviews do we use? What of geographical, political, social, economic and emotional maps, for example. The earliest map I can recall is a freshly-Gestettnered copy of the political map of Canada, which we would colour, every year, in our Social Studies class from about Grade 5 through to Grade 10. Our provinces and (at the time) 2 territories, were carved out firmly in our minds.

Mentally we have strong maps of our communities. As a Calgarian, my mental map of Calgary extends beyond its municipal borders to include the outskirts and proximal outlying towns, including the Bow corridor and into K-country and Banff. Like many Albertans, I don’t have a mental map of the miles leading up to the territories nor an understanding of the mountains north of Jasper or south of Hinton. Until recently, I didn’t have a relationship to anything further south than Lethbridge, and little contact with the towns I passed through on the way there. Furthermore, as an urbanite, what I noticed and saw were human populations – I lacked a basic vocabulary for rural and wild spaces or even the ability to recognize or differentiate the nuances of the landscape I was looking at. You cannot value what you cannot name.

So, as a social scientist and new to southern Alberta, it was interesting for me to note that “community” here in this region seems to extend from about Pincher Creek up along Highway 2 to Claresholm and Nanton, then over to Vulcan and down to envelop all that farmland up to Taber. The mental map doesn’t stop at the border, it extends down into Montana to at least Grand Forks. There’s a trickle across the eastern border as well, crossing over Medicine Hat into Saskatchewan and including that ranching and farm land there, too. So there’s a kind of horizontal chunk within the southern part of the province that crosses political boundaries but has little connection to the western or easternmost flanks. Being agriculturally based, there seems to be a greater mental representation of farmland, but generally speaking, many people have an incomplete picture of other types of land use in Southern Alberta. 

How about mapping demographically? Southern Alberta is extremely diverse in this regard, as well. Just as a small –and by no means comprehensive - sample, we have American Mormons, Dutch Mennonites, Russian Dukabores, German Hutterites, Japanese Buddhists, fundamentalist Christians, new-Agers; native Blood, Blackfoot, Peigan, Kainaii, ….. more recently, Indian, Korean and Bhutanese. Each of these belief and cultural systems have their own maps and traditions for how we relate to one another, to our selves and to our natural world. Our mental maps of a region are vastly different than what a cartographer can describe.

Yet, no matter who we are or how we live in southern Alberta, we all turn on a tap to get water, and, magically, out it comes; crystal-clear and pure to drink. Hauling water for humans and livestock is a mere 100 years ago – one lifetime is all it takes to erase that toil from our minds – until the next flood comes and we are put on a water advisory, that is. Suddenly, whether we are old or young; new Canadian or aboriginal; farmer or urbanite; Catholic or atheist; suddenly, we all begin to worry about water quality; and, ironically, water quantity.

The number and frequency of floods is increasing as global warming takes an ever-stronger foothold. Just a few degrees’ increase in temperature means less snowfall. Less snowfall means there is no slow-release of water from the snowpack over the spring and summer. It means that it rains instead. And when it rains, it pours - our freshwater rushes through ancient floodplains and across farmland, carving new routes, finding old ones and uprooting vegetation before swiftly exiting our landscape. It means flood – and it means drought.

So the question: ‘What is a watershed?’ is going to become of increasing importance in the upcoming years. It will be a word heard more often; and, when spoken, with more urgency.

Our Oldman watershed, though smaller than some of the other 11 watersheds in Alberta is nonetheless still vast. It begins with the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains in the eastern slopes – an area seldom seen and sparsely inhabited. The birthplace and cradle of the water of life is a delicate nursery, one to be cherished and nurtured and protected. We must be more thoughtful and more deliberate about our activities there, since too often we don’t understand how we are affecting water quality downstream. These many tiny mountain tributaries and underground springs along the eastern slopes feed into stronger streams that flow up through and over a place, tellingly, called High River; they also flow south through Waterton and Lethbridge. They provide the drinking water for humans and animals, for industry and agriculture, merging and flowing downhill as they meander ever eastward. Many smaller rivers combine to make the South Saskatchewan- the common exit point. This river then bends north – and continues downhill – to cross the tip of Lake Winnipeg and finally exit into the Hudson’s Bay.
The watershed is a map which shows our dependence on one another as opposed to mere spatial relationships. It is the only map which will tell us that: “We are all downstream”. A watershed is an area of land from which all moisture flows to a common exit point. It includes how cities grow, how mountains crumble, where airports are built and how mines are dug. A watershed is the trees that keep the stream banks intact; it is the wildlife ecosystems that keep it healthy and functioning.  watershed is the intuitive way to map both human and natural systems. Our watershed is what unites us.