Sturgeon River nominated as one of Canada’s most endangered rivers
First name: Elke
Last name: Blodgett
Organization: Anti-Bypass Coalition
City: St. Albert
Postal Code: T8N 0W8
[Note: the images referenced in this article, including maps, no longer exist at the links below]
1. Name of River: Sturgeon River
2. Alternate name: Cree: mi-koo-oo-pow (Red Willow Creek)
3. River’s Location (select all that apply): AB
4. URL of existing map: http://www.members.shaw.ca/SturgeonRiver/map.jpg
5. Length: 259 km
The Sturgeon River drains a watershed of 3,650 km2 in north central Alberta.
The Sturgeon is an important river in its own right. The watershed has an additional significance with its inclusion of Big Lake, the internationally recognized wetland and waterbird area now designated under the Special Places 2000 program.
The Sturgeon River basin is a microcosm of the forces that are causing degradation of so many watersheds in the prairie-forest parkland region. It is clearly a ‘threatened river’ that already shows many undesirable changes. However, its well-defined boundary and compact size lends itself to focused mitigating efforts that could be used as an example of how restorative programs could be made to work. It could thereby serve as a demonstration area while, at the same time protecting the threatened ecosystems associated with it.
It extends 259 km to its confluence with the North Saskatchewan River, just east (downstream) of the City of Fort Saskatchewan. It meanders widely as it traverses a series of lakes on its way east from Hoople Lake: Lake Isle, Lac. Ste. Anne, Devil’s Lake (Cree: Matchayaw Lake), and Big Lake (St.Albert–see Victor Post photo #9,http://www.members.shaw/ca/SturgeonRiver/ VictorPost.jpg). The mouth of the Sturgeon has produced a huge birds-foot delta in Big Lake, literally almost cutting the lake in half (see photo of Big Lake delta, site of oil field, http://www.members.shaw.ca/SturgeonRiver/AerialScan.jpg) Big Lake tends to double in size during heavy spring run-off or after severe rain storms. Extensive wetlands store the excess of water and recharge groundwater levels. (See St. Albert Floodplain Study, AE River Engineering Branch, Nov. 1990 for details on hydrology)
Big Lake Basin receives run-off from the Atim Creek sub-basin (411 km2 ), as well as inflow from approximately 75 per cent of the whole basin via the Sturgeon River.
Big Lake used to be known as the “Lake of Clear Waters”. In 1997, I met a man who had been born and raised in St. Albert. He had made his living selling barrels full of river water for 25 cents. That was drinking water. The river provided the town water supply until 1962. Today, there are warnings not to eat the fish from the river. The cumulative impact of the activities of man, combined with several years of drought, have turned the river into what Alberta Environment calls “unsustainable”. (“It can no longer sustain life” (Robert Moyles spokesperson AE)
That, by itself, implies a death sentence to any area so designated: it suggests that no efforts need be wasted at restoring the river water quantity and quality to somewhat more natural conditions to ensure its survival. That prognosis is clearly not acceptable.
Threats Facing the River:
1. Summary of Threat(s): Maximum 250 words What happened to reduce the river to its current state of degradation and “unsustainability”? An ecological base line can no longer be established. (see Chantell Bevan: A Case for the Wetlands, Big Lake, Alberta, 1996, for detailed impact on lake/river system ) Among the undesirable influences are the following.
Industrial users of water, past and present: oil field flooding, gravel extraction, lumber companies, building material manufacturers, dairies, poultry producers, all took water from river and dumped untreated waste back into the system.
Urban development: acreage development, trailer park, Edmonton “bedroom communities”: Big Lake and the river system became dumping site for sewage and waste. St .Albert dumped 270 millions gallons of sewage in 1975! Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, Morinville, Bon Accord, Gibbons, Onoway and Winterburn all dumped sewage in the past; some (Onoway) continue to do so. Cattle died of botulism, believed to have been infected from drinking river water. Urban stormwater is drained directly into the system.
– Clearing of trees abutting the banks of river.
– Cattle access to open waters.
– Leachate from old landfill site in St. Albert escapes into the system.
– pesticide and fertilizer, farm, golf course and industrial chemicals run-off into river.
– Road clearing snow dumped into the flood plain.
Future threats include:
– Storm sewer discharges increase with urban development. Carrot Creek! – Edmonton sub-division of 20,000 proposed.
– Parkland Acreage development on south lake shores.
– St. Albert housing development in and near floodfringe of lake/river system.
– Impact of additional golf course under construction.
– Channeling, ditching of western tributaries risk flash flooding.
– Increased water withdrawal from the system for gravel extraction.
– Encroaching urban sprawl onto wetlands of Sturgeon River threatens survival of sole remaining stand of white spruce-some of the older trees dating back to 1841 and witness to over a century of local history-(see Dr. Peter Murphy; Historical Backdrop ).
– Increased Gas/Oil field construction in Big Lake Delta (see photos of recent unexplained toxic discharge into river system: Discharge1 and Discharge2.
– Expressway river crossing planned near Big Lake through wetlands of St. Albert and the possibility of road run-off and spills into the river.
– Proposed Expressway will cross old sewer lagoon containing 25 years of accumulated sedimentation of toxic chemicals that are at risk of being disturbed when the lagoon gets drained into the river during road construction.
– Risk of leaching into aquifers from filled in former sewer lagoons (Right of Way of Expressway) used for indiscriminate dumping.
2. Category of threats to the ecology of the river (select all that apply):
urbanization, industrialization, mining, agriculture, gravel, damming, logging, pollution
gravel extraction using groundwater; poor oil/gas extraction practices; indiscriminate water withdrawal; dredging, trenching, channeling, in-filling, dumping.
3. Examples of negative impacts include (select all that apply):
fish abundance, riparian habitat, water quality, river flow, organic debris
– amphibian population declined drastically;
– loss of spawning grounds and habitat through fill-in of wetlands and drought conditions.
– bird kills from overhead high power lines across mouth of river.
Highlight the river’s natural resources, economical values, historical and cultural relevance, and the wildlife that inhabit the region and any other distinct river facts and features:
Obviously, the Sturgeon is not a majestic, river, nor a roaring river – but it is a wandering, gentle and intimate river. Without it, the history of exploration and settlement of this part of the West might have been quite different (see exploration and fur trade maps, Atlas of Alberta).
The Sturgeon River Valley was an important connection in establishing an overland route between the North Saskatchewan and Athabasca. West- and north-bound travelers and brigades traveled by canoe to the forts near the mouth of the Sturgeon (Augustus and early Edmonton) then portaged with pack horses (later with carts) through the parklands of the Sturgeon valley, crossing the divide near Lac la Nonne and down to the Pembina. At that point, they could canoe down to the Athabasca or, later, ford the Pembina and continue overland to Fort Assiniboine. Once on the Athabasca, they could head west to the Columbia or Fraser, head north to the Peace on the Lesser Slave River or to the lower Athabasca-Mackenzie.
The importance of the area lay in its ability to provide meat for the forts and brigades then, and when the buffalo were gone, with garden and farm produce. The river was important as a water supply and was recognized through the initial riverlot surveys that provided settlers with frontage. Thus, in recognition of the strategic importance of the Sturgeon River valley as an historic travel route and food source, by 1795, two trading companies established posts at the mouth of the Sturgeon River near the North Saskatchewan: Fort Augustus, run by the North West Company, and Fort Edmonton, by the Hudson’s Bay Company. (The HBC post was moved to Edmonton in 1814.)
The Catholic Church established missions at cultural cross roads of native, Metis and white settlers, such as the Mission at Lac Ste. Anne (1852) and St. Albert (1861). The remnants of the historic pilgrims trail from St. Albert to Lac Ste. Anne still exist today, following the north shore of the river and Big Lake as Meadowview Drive. Pilgrims from many native tribes and Metis still meet each May at the Mission Lac Ste. Anne for healing and blessing ceremonies in the sacred waters.
French and Metis settled on riparian river lots along the shores of the river and Big Lake. Agriculture thrived on fertile soil. Tamarack was cut for posts and poles, and spruce provided lumber. A gristmill (1864) had a short life near the shores of Big Lake, and the river powered a sawmill near Bon Accord in the late 1880s and 1890. In 1912, a paddlewheeler, the Sainte Theresa, took “tourists” on excursions from St. Albert to Big Lake. The Edmonton Canoe Club met on the Sturgeon for their sport, because the North Saskatchewan was too dangerous a river.
Long before white men and fur trade established permanent settlements, the river and lake system was used by natives. Artifacts daring back >8000 years 1still work their way out of ploughed fields each spring. (See St. Albert Museum) All along the high and dry shores of the Sturgeon and the lakes, you will find traces of early human activities, from seasonal temporary shelters 1in the forested areas to “workshops” where tools were made, to tipi rings 1etc. (See Archaeology of Alberta Series, vol. 17, 1981, for examples) The river valley was a travel corridor which enabled trade (I have even found artifacts of BC obsidian here) and allowed for easy pursuit of game. The game hunted ranged from buffalo, moose, bear and deer, down to muskrats, to the multitudes of upland and migratory birds. Waterfowl eggs were collected in the spring. Hunting and gathering supplied meat, feather, bone, hides, fish, berries, plants, etc. The river provided the essential: water for all.
Early artists such as Paul Kane, explorers and naturalists such as Thomas Drummond and David Douglas, the Sanford Fleming expedition (see G.M Grant journal, “Ocean to Ocean,” 1873) stopped over in this area on their journeys. In 1875, the NW Mounted Police established their outpost on the North Saskatchewan River near the mouth of the Sturgeon.
Since much of the land adjacent to the river, outside urban areas, is still uninhabited wetland (flood threats), there is an abundance of wildlife, from moose, deer, mule deer, bear, lynx, cougar, coyote, wolf (out west), common porcupine, red fox, American mink, woodchuck, red squirrel, Richardson’s ground squirrel, beaver, muskrat, weasel, snowshoe hare, gopher, voles, bats, shrews, mice, etc. There are too many upland and migratory birds to list, from eagles and pelicans to tiny wood warblers. (See Dr. Richard Thomas report on birds in Big Lake area, Big Lake Management Plan Phase I report, 2002: http://www.members.shaw/SturgeonRiver/BigLakePlan.pdf and http://www.shaw/SturgeonRiver/BigLakeMaps.pdf; one map details archaeological significance of river valley).
The fish are mostly gone now, except for some northern pike and small fry, which die by the thousands each winter, supposedly from “lack of oxygen”. Only great blue and other herons, and ospreys, still eat the fish that manage to survive the deteriorating conditions of the lakes and rivers.
Please explain in detail how your organization is planning on addressing the threats facing the river. What are your goals and how will you achieve them? What is required to maintain your organization’s efforts in addressing the issues? Briefly describe what has previously been done to protect or enhance the integrity of the river:
Our organization is an environmental conservation and protection group composed of residents of several of the municipalities bordering the Sturgeon River Valley. We depend on volunteer time and funding and have no financial support from any agencies. Recently, however, the Sierra Club has helped sponsor a post card campaign (see http://www.shaw/StugeonRiver/postcard.jpg) using art to call attention to the threats to the river valley).
We have continuously made presentations to all levels of government to express our concern about the impact of development, urban sprawl, oil/gas industry, gravel extraction, overuse and abuse of ground and surface water, etc.
In 1997, our group organized a widely supported petition against a major roadway and bridge construction which would have destroyed a large part of the sensitive wetlands of Big Lake and remaining White Spruce Forest. The petition succeeded but was ignored by our current council. The River Crossing Expressway (intended to be the width of the Golden Gate Bridge eventually!) is about to be constructed beginning this year: major threats to groundwater aquifers and surface water are obvious concerns, since the roadway construction will involve draining a former sewer lagoon, which is currently being used as storm sewer, into the fish bearing river. It will also involve crossing a former city dumpsite filled with indiscriminately dumped household and industrial waste, and which is currently releasing leachates into the river.
-Many years ago, we initiated the first annual Sturgeon River clean-up, a project carried out by Big Lake Environment Support Society (BLESS) (http://www.bless.ab.ca) and many volunteers, with the City of St. Albert’s assistance. -In 2001, we appealed to the Environmental Appeal Board against a fill-in approval for a large area of the flood fringe of the Sturgeon River for a housing development (Genstar). The appeal was lost. Consequences of filling in flood fringes for development in the Oakmont area of St. Albert, to which we had also objected, were ignored. Lawyers are still benefiting. – We have put a stop to dumping of road-clearing and salt contaminated snow into the flood fringe of the river (2002). – We have reported mysterious and so far major unexplained toxic discharges into the river within an oil field area (Dynamic Oil and Gas, 2003, see photos: http://www.members.shaw.ca/SturgeonRiverDischarge1.jpg and http://www.members.shaw.ca/SturgeonRiverDischarge2.jpg – We have objected to fill-in of parts of the waterways of Big Lake with suspicious so-called “clean fill” material from various sources (York, 2001),
– We have objected to industrial dumping in the flood fringe within St. Albert (Precast, 2000).
– A Statement of Concern has been submitted objecting to the requested increase of water withdrawals for gravel extraction (Kilini Creek, LaFarge, 2003).
I can not see that enforcement of any existing legislation has done anything to “enhance and protect the integrity” of the river, part of which is a designated Special Places 2000 Natural Area, although we are told by our mayor that the construction of a major expressway over the river would “enhance the natural area” adjacent to the river!
From my point of view, the entire watershed basin must be considered for any action to have any impact. One can not save a section of a living water system without going back to the source and ensuring the bigger ecological picture be assessed. New and more empowering legislation may well be required to restore and protect the water supply in this province.
If your river is selected, how will you promote the nomination or inform your community of the river’s nomination? Would you be willing to hold or participate in a press conference or any news event? Wildcanada.net will be developing an Action Centre for the most endangered river in each province and territory. How will you make use of this tool?
The Sturgeon River has had a lot of negative publicity in all media, (from local newspapers to national TV coverage; see aerial photos http://www.members.shaw.ca/SturgeonRiver/ Discharge1.jpg and …Discharge2.jpg; articles available upon request) recently. If it got nominated as “endangered river”, that would be the first positive step in recognizing publicly that something has to be done immediately to dis-endanger the watershed.
Designation as a Threatened River would certainly help to ensure
– that water quality and quantity are restored;
– that the wetlands are left undisturbed by fill-in for urban sprawl, to maintain wildlife habitat and to ensure necessary water recharge;
– that dumping of sewage and storm sewer discharges into the system be stopped;
– that only the most up-to-date techniques be used to minimize the effect of oil/gas and gravel activities;
– that less harmful chemicals be used for golf courses and agriculture;
– that unrestricted “authorized” water withdrawal, even in times of severe drought, as well as all illegal use of river water, be prosecuted;
– that industrial (possibly from future intensive feed lots) and other “discharges” or “leachates” be prevented and offenders charged;
– that herbicide spraying be forbidden close to water bodies, with no exception;
– that fish spawning grounds and amphibians be protected;
– that the remaining rare White Spruce Forest not stand threatened; etc….
– that archaeological sites of high potential be preserved and explored (see map,
– that environmentally sensitive areas be preserved. (see maps in additional material #4, Big Lake Plan.)
We need to change the “climate of opinion” and make people aware that our natural areas have other values than dollar signs. We need the support of the academic community and renowned experts such as Dr. David Schindler and Dr. Bill Donahue, to name just two. Any recognition that the Sturgeon is indeed a doomed and “unsustainable system” may get us that support, if combined with enough public pressure.
I am quite certain that the media would be anxious to follow up with a “good news” story and provide publicity: after all, Big Lake and much of the surrounding wetlands have been designated a Special Places 2000 Natural Conservation Area in 1999-a long time to wait and observe the continued degradation of a river system.
“Only when the water is not drinkable, the air is not breathable and the land cannot sustain wildlife or the human species, will man realize that he cannot eat money.” (Native proverb)
Elke Blodgett: http://www.ocii.com/~holonar/draftreview/index.htm
See also: http://members.shaw/SturgeonRiver/index.htm
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Photographer’s name: Victor Post
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Photographer’s address: St. Albert
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photo 9, Sturgeon River–St. Albert, facing west
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photo 10; Sturgeon River, Jan 2003, one of three discharges onto river
1.: Dr. Peter Murphy, St. Albert Open Spaces, Historical Perspective, 2002
2.: Dave Geddes, Historical Society of St.Albert, “How the River got its name”, Saint City News, March 14, 2003,
3.: Chantell Bevan, “The Case for the Wetlands: Big Lake, Alberta”, 1996
4.: Dr. Richard Thomas, “Big Lake Natural Area Management Plan Phase I Report”, 2002, see esp.section on birds; also see Maps.
6.: <photo, media,=”” a=”” href=”http://www.members.shaw.ca./SturgeonRiver/Flood-lowres.jpg”>Flood of 1997, St. Albert lagoon near river
7.: photo, Elke Blodgett, 2003, typical “meandering”, nw of St. Albert
9.: Supporting material: Aerial photo of river through St. Albert facing west