I stand amidst Alberta’s boreal forest, on the edge of a tiny river — the Waskahigan River — listening to the beautiful song of a pacific wren and watching a western wood-pewee zip from a branch overhanging the river, gracefully snatching mayflies that have just metamorphosed and started their life as adults off the surface of the water.
I watch raindrops ripple the surface of the tea-coloured stream, stained a light brown from the tannins dissolved in the clean spring water; water clean because it’s filtered as it passes through the sphagnum moss of the muskeg. As I see one single raindrop land, I wonder about what happens to it, about what its journey will look like. What challenges will this one droplet of water face ahead?
As it becomes just another droplet making up the river it flows to the east, under multiple bridges and through multiple culverts, eventually flowing into the Little Smoky River, then the Smoky, and then the Peace. From there it becomes part of the Slave River and flows up to Great Slave Lake, finally following the path of the Mackenzie River into the Atlantic Ocean. The journey to the Arctic Ocean is an amazing 3600 km and it is not without challenges. Many of these challenges are long before the ocean in an area that needs help, the Little Smoky.
The very first challenge the little droplet of H₂O will face is only a few hundred meters downstream from where I stand. There is a water pump set up at a bridge, extracting water from the river. This could be water that is sprayed onto the extensive oil and gas and forestry roads snaking through the area to keep dust levels down. This water does make its way back into the stream, however with it comes dust and dirt, antifreeze, motor oil, litter, and any other pollutants found on the roads. Even without this dust control these pollutants harm the river; when it rains they wash down to the water and the dust from the road still makes its way to the river when trucks kick it up into the air, coating the gravel in silt and altering the ecosystem and degrading important spawning habitat. Fish like the Arctic grayling found in the Waskahigan require clean gravel on the bottom of rivers to lay their eggs.
The water might be getting pumped out of the river for another reason that requires a lot of fresh water. It could be used in one of the numerous hydraulic fracturing operations going on in the area. If the water droplet gets pulled out of the river for this purpose, it will be contaminated as it’s mixed with chemicals used in fracking, such as benzene and will eventually end up in a disposal well, not back into the water cycle.
Assuming that the water droplet makes it past this first bridge, it will continue past amazing Little Smoky habitat. Past huge sandstone walls, deposits of shale, and limestone outcrops; past sphagnum moss muskeg with black spruce and tamarack; and past boreal forest of lodgepole pine, aspen, and white spruce. It flows past critical habitat for grizzly bears and woodland caribou and through one of the last great pieces of habitat for Arctic grayling this far south.
Unfortunately it will also flow beside gravel roads and under many bridges. It will pass cutlines and flow through culverts. It will go past OHV damage and through cutblocks. All of these are human created disturbances that impact the ecosystem.
The roads and cutlines fragment the habitat impacting the grizzly bear and caribou populations; the culverts prevent the movement of migratory grayling; and the gravel roads, bridges, cutblocks, and OHV damage degrade the habitat within the stream through increased erosion, runoff, and the introduction of silt and pollutants into the stream.
The little river that this raindrop landed in is part of the amazing Little Smoky region. A region rich with wonderful geology and biology but also crisscrossed by kilometer after kilometer of cutlines and roads. A region with threatened wildlife but still being exploited for oil, gas, and timber. A region that deserves to be protected but right now is not. The woodland caribou and grizzly bears deserve to be protected and the important Arctic grayling habitat deserves to remain pristine. Action needs to be taken.
The pacific wren starts another bubbling song and it brings me back to where I stand, rain dripping off the bill of my baseball cap. Standing amidst Alberta’s boreal forest, on the edge of a little, tea-stained stream; the Waskahigan River. The river’s name comes from the Cree word, wâskahikan, meaning house. It is an appropriate name due to its tall stone walls and it being the home to countless creatures. We would not stand for our own house being slowly degraded and destroyed. Why will we stand for this?