Northern Alberta's headwaters, located in the Rocky Mountains, provide a source of drinking water to our communities and critical habitat to many of our iconic species. Together with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, CPAWS is calling for better headwaters protection and management of headwaters by the establishment of protected areas in the government of Alberta's land use planning processes.
What are Alberta’s Headwaters?
Located in the Rocky Mountains, Alberta’s major rivers’ headwaters provide a steady source of drinking water to Canada’s Prairie Provinces. In Northern Alberta, the Peace River, Athabasca River, and North Saskatchewan River provide water to Ft. Chipewyan, Athabasca, Ft. McMurray, Slave Lake, Edmonton, Hinton, Jasper, Nordegg, and Drayton Valley, among many other communities.1
Why are Alberta’s Headwaters Important?
Headwaters are Northern Alberta’s source for drinking water
The North Saskatchewan River brings drinking water to over 870,000 living in Edmonton alone. The North Saskatchewan, Peace and Athabasca River basins provide drinking water to many hundreds of thousands more!2
Safe and protected headwaters means a safe and secure water source for Northern Alberta.
Headwaters provide critical habitat for wildlife and a buffer for climate change
Northern Alberta’s headwaters provide critical habitat for some of our most sensitive wildlife, including grizzly bears, mountain woodland caribou, and bull trout. The Bighorn backcountry, for example, provides a home to Lake Sturgeon and Whitebark Pine, species which are both “Endangered” according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The North Saskatchewan River’s headwaters alone contain 36 species of cold water fishes.1
As climate change continues to impact our province, Northern Alberta’s headwaters may provide a critical “climate refugia” for certain species, such as boreal forest songbirds, because of cooler temperatures and higher precipitation levels.3
Headwaters provide AWESOME recreational opportunities
Some of Northern Alberta’s most beautiful wild places are in our headwaters – the Bighorn backcountry, for example, provides ample opportunity for paddling, climbing, hiking, cycling, and other recreational activities!
Photos: C. van Rensen
Map: D. Pendlebury
Alberta’s Headwaters in Peril
There are signs that Alberta’s mountain headwaters are diminishing - summer water flow in Alberta’s rivers has decreased 20-84% compared to 100 years ago due to damming, human water withdrawal, and increased climate warming, and most large glaciers in the headwaters of the Bow, Saskatchewan, and Athabasca Rivers have shrunk by approximately 25% in the last century (Schindler and Donahue, 2006).
Some of Alberta’s headwaters are already protected by national parks or provincially protected areas, but there are some major gaps in legislated protection. Where our headwaters are protected, sometimes poor management or a lack of resources devoted to management mean the headwaters suffer.
Northern Alberta’s headwaters need help!
Together with the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, CPAWS Northern Alberta will be traveling to northern communities this Spring to encourage Albertans to learn about and participate in the government of Alberta's Land Use Framework planning processes. Keep an eye on our Events page for upcoming workshops and presentations about headwaters protection, and the importance of protected areas in Alberta's north.
For more information:
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