Millions of families visit the Canadian province of Alberta and take home memories of stunning natural beauty. Far-reaching boreal forests in the north, endless prairies stretching eastward to Saskatchewan, interrupted by occasional stretches of badlands – it is a full sensory experience for parents and kids alike. But most visitors will tell you about the magnificent Rocky Mountains that frame the western border of Alberta. Many of these families experience the Rockies via Kananaskis Country, a magical region comprising provincial parks and wild spaces south of Banff National Park and adjacent to the million-plus population of Calgary. Most visitors don’t see the fragile state of Alberta’s watersheds and wetlands in this wilderness playground.
Water is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Alberta, yet over 20 percent of the province is covered in wetlands – critical ecosystems within larger watersheds that distribute water across Alberta. The prairies, foothills and mountain ranges hide the marshes, ponds and swamps that dot Kananaskis Country and the rest of central and southern Alberta. “Kananaskis Country is a multi-use area with a number of different stakeholders,” says Hilary Young, a Director for the non-profit Friends of Kananaskis Country. “Its resources need to be conscientiously managed and cared for.” Both urban and rural development pressures have compromised many of these wetlands, as well as the larger watersheds like the Elbow River that run through Alberta cities, towns and industries.
According to Sarah Hamza of the Elbow River Watershed Partnership, there are two significant threats to watersheds like the Elbow: managing water and land separately since what we do on the land affects the water; and addressing land use activities as if each one occurs in isolation. Hamza adds, “We must look at the cumulative impacts of all the activities on the land and water.”
The Friends of Kananaskis Country and the Elbow River Watershed Partnership recognize that engaging youth in issues that affect watersheds and wetlands creates informed leaders of the future. With the support of partners like the City of Calgary and Mountain Equipment Co-op, as well as the Government of Alberta, the Friends connect thousands of students to their environment and their water sources. “Our environmental education program allows students to discover for themselves the cumulative effects of the area’s activities on the watershed,” states Young. “They come away with new perspectives on the sensitivity of aquatic systems to disturbances, and ideas about how their own water consumption might change.”
Children can exert tremendous influence on their parents’ behavior. By tapping into their innate curiosity about nature and the living things around them, they are better prepared to make good decisions about the planet’s future. As Young concludes, “There’s no better place to start effecting change than by sparking and inspiring the next generation!”