By Rob Taylor, OWC Staff
The province recently announced that it would be investing $20 million into the MD of Pincher Creek in order to extend a waterline from Cowley out to Beaver Mines and the Castle Ski Hill - and pave a stretch of Highway 774 out to the Castle Mountain Resort.
Thank you to the many people who have expressed concerns and questions to us regarding the justification for these infrastructure projects, and have wondered how these projects can possibly align with watershed health. Hopefully this blog will shed some light on these questions.
The funding from the Provincial Government has been allocated as follows:
- $6 Million to pave 11 kilometers of Highway 774 up to the Castle Mountain Resort.
- $4.7 Million of mixed grants from the Province and the Federal government for a water supply line from Cowley to Beaver Mines.
- $9 Million to connect the water supply line from Beaver Mines to Castle Mountain Resort.
Cowley to Beaver Mines to Castle Mountain Resort Water Line:
Currently, the newly announced funding is only for a water supply line. Some funding was already given to the MD of Pincher Creek to supply the Hamlet of Beaver Mines with water from the Cowley Water Treatment plant. This additional funding will be used to create a bigger line with more capacity than the initial project. There are still plans in the works for sewage lines as well but there is not currently funding for this yet. One item that will require additional funding in the near future would be an RV dump station for blackwater disposal from RVs using the Castle Parks.
Water quality and access to safe drinking water has been a recurring issue for the Hamlet of Beaver Mines over many years. This funding announcement will supply safe drinking water to residents of Beaver Mines. However, it does not address issues with groundwater contamination from faulty septic tanks and collapsing septic fields in the community. This will require further investment.
There have been numerous warnings about potential ground water contamination from failed septic tanks in the community. According to Alberta Health Services, the groundwater accessed by most of the residences in Beaver Mines lay in a shallow aquifer that is very susceptible to contamination.
"Further to previous communications in 2014 and 2015, Alberta Health Services (AHS) recognizes the potential risks and negative cumulative effects of the current drinking water and waste water system used in Beaver Mines. Our office has investigated an increasing number of failed private sewage systems in Beaver Mines. Furthermore, groundwater is the primary drinking water source for the residents, and Environmental Public Health has serious concerns with the increasing likelihood residents will be negatively impacted from waterborne diseases.”
- Dr. Karin Goodison, Medical Officer of Health, Alberta Health Services - South Zone, Environmental Public Health
The extension of the waterline to the Castle Mountain Resort is also a much needed upgrade both to supply water to the ski hill and to provide water for facilities within the new Castle Provincial Park. It is not clear if Castle Mountain Resort will be using the water to meet its potable water needs only or also for snow-making on the ski hill. Currently, the ski hill acquires potable water from a couple of wells (30-40m deep) and water for snow making from a diversion on Haig Creek. In 2012, the ski hill applied for a licence to draw 30,000 cubic meters of water per year from Haig Creek for the purpose of snow making but the application was not approved. It is unclear whether the Resort will be able to use the water from the new pipeline for snow production.
Bringing in potable water from the Cowley Water Treatment plant will reduce the resort's pressure on local sources of surface and ground waters and help accommodate increased use by visitors to the resort and the new Castle Provincial Park.
Paving of Highway 774
For at least the last 5-10 years, the MD of Pincher creek and Alberta Transportation have been looking to pave the final 11 kilometers of Highway 774. Initial engineering assessments for the paving project were completed in 2011. Paving this stretch of road will improve the driver safety and to make snow removal easier in the winter.
OWC recognizes that this kind of development raises concerns about potential commercialization of the Castle Provincial Park, but thus far indications are that commercial developments will be focused in the Town of Pincher Creek, Hamlet of Beaver Mines and Municipality of Crowsnest Pass and not within the Park itself. These are Infrastructure projects - not Environment & Parks projects.
Roads of any form do have negative impacts on wildlife populations, hydrology, and watershed health. Winter maintenance can add additional impacts with sanding and salting of roads. (For more information on the effects of of Road Salts Follow the Link). However, the 11km stretch of Highway 774 between the Castle Mountain Resort and just south of Castle River falls below safety standards even for the existing levels of traffic. Many of the water crossings are poorly designed and need to be rebuilt as well.
Paving this stretch of road will not result in an increase of the linear features density since there will be no overall increase in the length of the road network in the Castle Provincial Park. Currently, the existing road network in the Castle Provincial Park has an overall density of approximately 0.47 km/km2 which falls below the ecological thresholds for the species at risk found within the Castle. So long as this road network is not expanded, keeping and even upgrading these main roads could be a reasonable compromise to improve the quality and safety of the existing road network.
**Note: Road Density and Total Linear Features Density differ significantly in the Castle Parks. Based on a study conducted by Global Forest Watch, the Total Linear Features Density in the Castle Provincial Park is 3.5km/km2 because there are so many trails. This is far above what it needs to be to meet the habitat requirements for many species at risk within the Park. Trail reclamation will be needed to get the total linear features density down to acceptable levels. With the main roads being kept, only a few trails will be possible in order to keep road and linear features densities within species at risk thresholds. **
This is especially important in the context of increased tourism to the region following the establishment of the Castle Provincial Park. Most likely we can look forward to a scenario like Writing on Stone Provincial Park or the parks in Kananaskis Country. A park where there are a few key access roads, rustic campgrounds, perhaps an interpretive centre, but no commercial development and with the vast majority of the landscape left in a natural state.
Many people have asked why would the province improve the infrastructure of an area they are trying to protect and re-naturalize by banning OHV use? There will be increased number of visitors to the Castle now that the two parks have been established. There is likely not any way around this. However, this increased tourism will be an economic driver for the region. Providing visitors with paved roads and hard infrastructure in the main travel corridors of the Provincial Park will reduce impacts elsewhere, particularly in the Wildland Park.
As an example, providing visitors with campsites that have compacted gravel pad with a permanent fire ring is far more resilient to heavy use than a clearing in the forest. Motorized access random camping was more sustainable in previous decades when there were far fewer people in the Castle on a given weekend. After a site was disturbed, it would have a rest period (i.e. time for the vegetation to recover, wildlife to move back in), before being used again. However, with Alberta's ever expanding population, this type of use is no longer sustainable because there are no rest periods - and our headwaters are suffering from it.
Providing the majority of users with a quality front country camping experience will prevent damage in the backcountry. The minority of users who still want the rustic backcountry experience can still have it in the Wildland Park, where as long as you are accessing it by muscle power (i.e. Foot, Bike, Horse, Kayak) you can random camp. The increased effort and skill required for this kind of backcountry experience acts as an effective filter keeping the majority of users in the hardened off areas of the Provincial Park where there is infrastructure to support the heavy use.
For more information about the Castle, please see: https://www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/about-us/public-consultations/archives/enhancing-the-protection-of-the-castle-area/