“RALLY FOR THE RIVER” 2017: A Major Milestone for Watershed Efforts


 “We all have a creative role to play if we want water breakthroughs in Alberta.”

A recent report by the World Wildlife Foundation ranked threats to the Red Deer River watershed as very high, identifying issues ranging from pollution to habitat fragmentation, to the overuse of water. In the face of these challenges, Rally for the River was an opportunity to engage people curious about the future of our watershed and to explore new avenues to steward and protect the Red Deer River landscape - an area of over 49,000 km² and home to over 300,000 central Albertans.

 This unique and inspiring two-day event brought people together to learn about regional water challenges, explore possible breakthroughs, and chart a course forward for the future of watershed management in the Red Deer River watershed. 

Day One:

Day One of Rally for the River brought together 50 invitees from various levels of government, non -profits/ENGO’s, First Nations communities, and private industry to delve into the complex world of water challenges and to consider new, collaborative, and leading-edge approaches to tackling some of these critical water issues. RDRWA convened these 50 big thinkers in the world of water to help identify what is currently happening within the watershed, to map out areas with high potential for change, and to explore what is possible in a larger context. Executive Director Jeff Hanger noted “It was incredible to see these great people get engaged in watershed management at our event.”

Rally for the River was designed to build off of past planning work led by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and our partnership with Alberta Ecotrust through Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues, a social innovation lab taking a systems approach to water issues in the Red Deer River watershed (www.projectbluethumb.com). After warm welcomes from Jeff Hanger and Pat Letizia, Executive Directors of the RDRWA and Alberta Ecotrust, participants were introduced to six draft Action Pathways - a new approach to focus and catalyze shared watershed management efforts. RDRWA Executive Director Jeff Hanger reminded attendees that we are in a state of exploration and that the road ahead is winding. While we don’t have all the answers, we do have a renewed sense of focus and a vast network of water champions with a significant collective knowledge.

The RDRWA’s Planning Manager, Josée Méthot presented on the origin of Project Blue Thumb as a way to explore “what is possible” in relation to watershed protection, and emphasized the need for approaches grounded in systems thinking while supporting focused action. To better understand system dynamics, participants were then guided through an activity examining the “rules” that guide the flocking behaviour of birds. It turns out that simple rules often guide complex system dynamics – a key lesson for our work in the complex world of watershed management.

Over the course of the day, invitees had the opportunity to explore each of the six Action Pathways, share insights, and discuss possible actions. Six interactive, multi-sensory stations highlighting each of the Action Pathways were designed to stimulate thoughtful dialogue, and to engage both “left-brain” (analytical) and “right-brain”(creative) thinkers using hands-on activities. Six alumni of Project Blue Thumb were invited to introduce each respective action pathway and to share their perspective on why a given Action Pathway is important. 

The day’s proceedings were captured in graphic format by the talented graphic recorder Julie Murray from Calgary. A sincere thanks to Julie for working so diligently to create a beautiful and compelling pictorial record of the day’s conversations.

Day Two:

Close to 70 people attended Day Two of Rally for the River, including many returning attendees from Day One and other people new to the work of the RDRWA. The day also doubled as the RDRWA’s 2017 Fall Forum. It was thrilling to see the unique perspectives brought by the Rally’s participants, and their passion for water and land use issues in central Alberta. The day’s agenda built on the momentum of Day One of the Rally, and encouraged participants to consider that we all have a role to play if we want to see real water breakthroughs in Alberta.

As with the first day of the Rally, the 2017 Fall Forum set the stage for the RDRWA to share a new strategic approach to the increasingly complex world of watershed management within the basin. The six Action Pathways were introduced to new attendees, and everyone was encouraged to take part in an Idea Gallery, where they could roam freely around the room while exploring different Action Pathways and the ideas that were developed during Day One.  As part of the plenary discussion, groups were invited to share their expertise, insights, and key learnings gleaned from the Idea Gallery with the larger group.

The highlight of the day was a keynote presentation from the eminent landscape ecologist Dr. Brad Stelfox, who demonstrated how land uses across the watershed have changed over time, how this influences water quality, and what these changes mean for future watershed health.

Dr. Stelfox gave a powerful and thought-provoking talk, reiterating a strong message that water in the Red Deer River watershed is a precious and finite resource. He stressed that the impacts of climate change, combined with the over-allocation of our rivers, will cause a crisis in years to come if people don’t combine their efforts now to change the way water and land resources are managed. Dr. Stelfox noted that watershed protection is a highly complex issue, and could eventually require real legislative and regulatory changes at municipal and provincial levels. But Stelfox also reminded people that “there’s no wrong place to begin” and we can all take small, individual actions that may add up to larger cumulative benefits within the watershed.

The RDRWA’s Planning Manager Josée Méthot later took the stage to discuss “the good” and “the bad” in the watershed, and discussed the implications that changing watershed conditions have for shared watershed management efforts.  She emphasized the need for focused and coordinated action, and the need for everyone to play a stronger role moving forward.  

Municipal councillor for Wheatland County and RDRWA Board Member Brenda Knight closed the Rally for the River with her personal learnings from the two days, and reflected on the opportunities that Rally for the River had brought to light.  Participants were also invited to consider what level of involvement they might want to have in moving the six Action Pathways forward.

There were so many rich conversations over the course of the two days, and it is a testament to the creativity, openness, and willingness of those who attended Rally for the River to learn from one another and jump in to tackle these challenges and focus our collective efforts to achieve real and meaningful change. 

We all have the power to be champions for watershed resilience and it is clear that there is a strong appetite and shared commitment to collaborate to see change at a larger systems level. RDRWA Executive Director Jeff Hanger noted that the success of the RDRWA depends on people coming together: “We all need water in our lives and we are stronger working together than we are working apart.” RDRWA and Alberta Ecotrust also committed to keeping people apprised of next steps and future opportunities to collaborate and champion the work that was started with Rally for the River.

From all of us with the RDRWA and Alberta Ecotrust, we would like to extend an enormous thank you to all of the participants who attended Rally for the River and helped to blaze a new trail in watershed management for the Red Deer River watershed. We left feeling energized and inspired, and can’t wait to explore what is possible the months to come!

Thank you once again to all of our event sponsors whose generous financial support made Rally for the River possible!

  • Sobey’s (South Red Deer)
  • Special Areas Board
  • Alberta Beef Producers
  • Repsol Energy Company

Thank you also to Project Blue Thumb sponsors:

  • RBC Foundation
  • Conoco Phillips
  • Alberta Government
  • Plains Midstream Canada




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