Last Friday, December 3rd, a diverse group of parties united by their interested in Elk River watershed health convened to discuss the implementation of an Elk River Watershed Collaborative Monitoring Program.

The effort, initiated by the Elk River Alliance (ERA)— a not-for-profit that engages communities in the Elk Valley— is an extension of their ongoing watershed stewardship work. Maintaining Elk River watershed health is vital to all who live in the Elk Valley, said George Greene, Chair of the ERA. Many groups are monitoring components of watershed health or hold knowledge about this watershed, but bringing that knowledge together for a full picture is a complicated venture, he said.

The 27 participants included representatives from the Tobacco Plains Band, fly-fishing outfitters, conservation groups, the coal industry, scientists, provincial and local government representatives. Greene said the main goals of the forum were threefold: to initiate a discussion on values associated with Elk River watershed health, to inform monitoring efforts that address cumulative effects on watershed health, and to discuss a governance approach to guide the Collaborative Monitoring Program.

The forum began with opening remarks by Nasukin (Chief) Heidi Gravelle and prayer by Councillor Kyle Shottanana of the Tobacco Plains Band.

“We can be stewards of not just the land, but the water,” opened Nasukin Gravelle, and continued “I feel very confident that this relationship […] will benefit the water.”

Councillor Shottanana emphasized the importance of monitoring the pulse of the river, to see if it is angry. George Greene, Chair on ERA’s board of directors, said the comments by Councillor Shottanana were especially impactful and beautifully captured the goal of the new monitoring effort.

“Our valley has citizens that use the Elk River in diverse ways, and we all rely on the watershed as a source of life,” said Greene, “and to monitor the watershed, we need to keep track of its vital signs and ensure its health is maintained.”

A key component of the discussion considered the question of cumulative effects. We know humans impact aquatic ecosystems in various ways: from commercial and residential development, to mining and road development, to forestry practices and recreational fishing, to invasive species, and all further affected by climate change, said Greene. When these stressors act in combination, they have cumulative effects on organisms, he said.

“Oftentimes, organizations collect data that are relevant to their own need, or to understand the impact of a specific stressor,” said Chad Hughes, Executive Director of the ERA, “Instead, this collaborative monitoring program aims to provide data and knowledge that allows an understanding of the overall health of the watershed.”

Hughes said concerns regarding watershed health voiced by groups were emblematic of the values shared by many Elk Valley citizens: are fish populations stable? Are fish safe to eat? Can I safely swim in the river? What is happening to the glaciers and headwaters? The specific questions the Collaborative will focus on have not yet been laid out, but that is the objective over the next several months.

“Before we start designing the monitoring program, we must agree on the questions we want the monitoring to answer. The answers to those questions should support decision-making about watershed management,” said Stella Swanson, an aquatic ecologist and member of the ERA board of directors, “Because we expect this program to extend for many years, we need to work together— in concert with the range of watershed interests— to carefully develop the monitoring questions, evaluate the answers, and update the questions as we begin to understand the priorities for management of cumulative effects on the Elk River system.”

Hughes said there’s still a long way to go, but this forum was a great first step in bringing interested partners together to design and implement the Collaborative Monitoring Program.

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