Three cheers for more data : An update on surface water monitoring

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People who work in watershed management love data. We are always on the lookout for good data and insights about the state of the rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater we care about. So, in honour of our fellow data nerds out there, this blog provides some good news about updates to the surface water quality monitoring program in Alberta.

Recently, the Government of Alberta released a new plan describing changes to their surface water quality monitoring program. Titled “A five-year provincial water quality monitoring, evaluation, and reporting plan for lotic systems”, the report is a major step forward for surface water quality monitoring efforts in the Red Deer River watershed and across the province.

Highlights of the plan include:

  • Establishing four scientific questions to guide the overall focus of monitoring, evaluation, and reporting efforts in Alberta’s rivers and tributaries.   
  • Committing to continuing monitoring at Long-term River Network (LTRN) stations as a way to understand changes to water quality over time and maintain historical datasets.
  • Creating a Tributary Monitoring Network to monitor water quality in key tributaries, starting in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (which includes our watershed).
  • Adopting a “mass balance approach” to estimate the input and output of materials from tributaries to major rivers and to better assess non-point source and point sources of loadings.
  • Developing a QA/QC program to ensure data quality for monitoring efforts.

Back in 2016, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance released Blueprint: An Integrated Watershed Management Plan for the Red Deer River watershed (Phase One: Water Quality). We made some specific recommendations for improving water quality monitoring in our watershed, and now we have the opportunity to compare how the Government of Alberta’s new plan measures up.

The results? We have made some huge strides forward (see Table 1 for a summary). Hooray!

Notably, a new Tributary Monitoring Network has been established in the Red Deer River watershed, with 18 monitoring stations set up to help us better understand water quality trends in key tributaries. By co-locating water quality and water quantity monitoring stations, Government scientists will now be able to better assess sources of loadings (non-point versus point source), which will give us all a better idea of where to target watershed management efforts.

There is also some good news related to how water quality data will be analyzed and reported back to stakeholders. In the past, the Government of Alberta has faced some criticism around the level of evaluation and reporting of data collected under the long-term river network program, which was perceived as inadequate by some organizations. Through this new plan, they have committed to “mining” existing long-term data sets (aka. conducting key analyses), publishing peer-reviewed papers with important findings, and preparing fact sheets for stakeholders. We are looking forward to the new data and insights this program will generate, and we will continue to advocate for clear, regular reporting products for use in our shared watershed management efforts.

Taken together, these changes are a big step in the right direction. While we would have liked to see more real-time monitoring of temperature, and a station set up in Reach 2 of the mainstem of the river, it’s hard to overstate the significance of finally having data for key tributaries and being able to calculate loads. These changes to the overall monitoring program have been years in the making, and these steps forward are worth celebrating.

Moving forward, the Government of Alberta is slated to release a report about monitoring and reporting for lakes (which are “lentic systems”, i.e., standing waters) in 2019/20. We will be sure to update our members again when the report is released. Until then, if you have an appetite to dig into some research about water quality in our basin, Government scientists have published some recent results in these papers:

Salinity in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB): Are rivers in the SSRB getting saltier? Road salt use, municipal wastewater, and agricultural activities are contributing to increasing concentrations of dissolved salts in the SSRB’s major rivers.  Open access link here.
Heavy metals in the Red Deer River: Erosion of soils from Alberta badlands are leading to elevated concentrations of heavy metals (cadmium, copper, mercury, and lead) in the eastern portions of the Red Deer River watershed. Open access link here.
Effect of sampling frequency on summary statistics: Sampling regimes significantly affect the accuracy of water quality data including concentrations, exceedances, and trend statistics. Uncertainties associated with monthly water quality sampling, in particular, call into question how water quality monitoring programs are designed and how key summary statistics are used within water resources management. Open access link here

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