In Over My Head

How is the Oldman watershed unique, why it is ecologically important, and how has our climate been changing in Alberta over the decades? In this episode, Michael explores some of the basics around the Oldman watershed, water security and climate adaptation. 

Featured Guests:
Shannon Frank - Executive Director: Oldman Watershed Council
Stefan Kienzle - Professor Emeritus: University of Lethbridge 

What is In Over My Head?

Michael is on a quest to get his environmental footprint as low as humanly possible. So he built his own off-grid Tiny House. But downsizing and minimizing weren’t enough. He had to take more drastic measures, altering his lifestyle in some extreme ways, all in the name of saving the planet. But when it comes to his goal, he still feels in over his head. He doesn’t know if all the downsizing, minimizing, reducing, reusing, recycling, and sacrificing make a difference. It’s time to bring in the experts.

Join Michael as he sits down with scientists, policymakers, industry leaders, and environmental experts to figure out how to effectively reduce his footprint in all aspects of life. From food and fast fashion to cars and caskets, he gets into what the worst culprits really are and how we can all make more informed choices when it comes to the impact we have on the planet.

If you have feedback or would like to be a guest on In Over My Head, please email:

Well, I'm in over my head, no one told me trying to keep my footprint small was harder than I thought it could be. I’m in over my head, what do I really need? Tryin’ to save the planet, oh, will someone please save me? Tryin’ to save the planet, oh, will someone please save me?
Welcome to In Over My Head. I'm Michael Bartz. For this season, I'll be exploring the Old Man Watershed located in my home community of Southern Alberta. Recently we faced concerns around water security related to climate change. I want to talk about what's going on and how we can adapt. So I sat down with environmental experts, city employees, business owners, and everyday people to learn as much as I could about why our watershed matters and how we can protect it. To start, I want to go over some of the basics. So I talked with someone who knows all about our watershed.
Hello, my name's Shannon Frank. I'm the executive director of the Old Man Watershed Council. A watershed is an area of land that drains into a single water body and a watershed can be at any different scale. So you might have a small watershed that drains into a nearby pond, and you might call that Shannon's pond watershed. And then if you keep getting bigger and bigger, we have the Crowsnest River Watershed, the Willow Creek Watershed, and all of those major rivers flow into the Old Man River. And so then we call that larger area the Old Man River Watershed, which then flows across Saskatchewan, into Manitoba and into Lake Winnipeg and out to Hudson's Bay. So at the larger scale, we're also part of the Hudson's Bay Watershed. So in our watershed, it starts in the mountains. Most of our major rivers start in the mountains, not all, some rise in the Porcupine Hills or even on the prairie, but ours mostly do start in the mountains and then yeah, they flow downstream through different tributaries into the Old Man River. And so it's literally based on the geography of the land. If you picture any sort of hill or mountain on one side of the mountain, the water flows that way and the other side, it's going to flow the opposite way. That's what the continental divide is with British Columbia. And so the rivers literally flow opposite directions. And about 90% of the water in the Old Man River comes from those mountain headwaters, the prairie streams and some of the smaller streams contribute very little.
And the Old Man River, I guess it's connected to Lethbridge and then just all around Southern Alberta. As far as the different towns.
It goes by the actual rise and fall of the land. So it's a very irregular shape, but it starts roughly around High River in the north and goes across eastwards towards Taber, joins the Bow River at Grassy Lake. So that's the Eastern boundary. And then in the Southern boundaries, actually the states, the St. Mary River and actually starts in the States in Glacier National Park and flows through the Blackfeet Nation. And we benefit a lot from that protection of that river. And that's one of our most productive rivers. I think it's around 19% of the water in the old man comes from the St. Mary River. And then of course the continental divide with British Columbia is the western border. So yeah, it's a good size. It's 28,000 square kilometers.
Is there anything that makes the Old Man watershed unique for this area?
Well, it's one of the more biodiverse areas. That's why Waterton Lakes National Parks was established because there's a lot of biodiversity there. And it's unique in that it's where the prairies kind of smashes right up against the mountains. There's not like a big foothills area in between. You see further north where we have the porcupine hills and there's more gradual geography. And also that's why the Castle Parks was established because it's one of the more intact landscapes that's left in the southwest area. And so it was protected a few years ago. One thing that might be very interesting for you with the climate topic is the old man watershed. I was told by Dr. Dave Sauchyn at the University of Regina, who's a renowned climatologist that we're actually the most volatile variable climate outside of a couple places in Siberia in terms of our highs and lows.
With the minus 30 and the plus 30, it's very extreme. And so we do have that extreme climate to tend with already it's proven over what he uses tree rings to see what was the climate and the moisture situation, the river flows over the past thousand years. He can look through these tree rings and we can see through that. There's been 50-year droughts around here. There's been colossal floods, way bigger than anything we've seen way bigger than the 95 flood that everybody talks about is kind of baked into our history as the one. We've had very extreme climate here for the past thousand years. And now with climate change and global warming, that's going to get even more extreme, which is a little scary.
So I guess with these changes in the climate, I'm thinking there's going to be maybe more floods or more droughts or so how would that affect our local watershed?
Well, our watersheds are, I mean, more equipped to deal with it. Our natural ecosystems are very resilient. They're used to dealing with that extreme climate. I'm more worried about the humans. We're not equipped, we're not ready. And certainly we've degraded some of our watershed. So those areas are more vulnerable and that's why we spend a lot of our time and money on restoring ecosystems, trying to build that resiliency so they can withstand floods and droughts and support us to withstand them. So that's where we get our water from. And then this year we're in kind of our third year of drought. We're having these bad seasonal droughts where we might get some spring rain or some decent snowpack, but by July and certainly into August, it's really dry and really bad, really low flows. We're seeing a lot of creeks and rivers dried up.
Dugouts are empty, groundwater wells have dropped, and there's just not enough water for cattle or for crops. And the grass isn't growing so dry, so there's nothing for the cattle to eat. That means that the trees and the shrubs and the grasses are very stressed too. They're probably not growing. They're probably either going dormant and saving their energy for next year, hoping for some precipitation. That's what plants generally do most. Some of them can go dormant to save energy and water. So that's what they do. And so they have less food to eat, they have less water to drink. And certainly if you're a fish in one of those creeks or rivers that dried up, then you're toast.
And I guess when you say you're working on protecting these areas, repairing them, keeping the biodiversity going, I guess, does that make your job more difficult if there are more floods or droughts or those different changes, or is it kind of the same as before because we've had a lot of that here?
No, it's actually very difficult to restore areas because we have to now water it. There isn't enough precipitation to water the plants because a lot of restoration is based on planting native grasses, native shrubs, trees, willows, and they need water to get established. And so now we're having to water them and irrigate them to make sure they can survive. And so it adds another layer of complexity like who's going to water them, how we have to pump water from somewhere or drive it in a tank from somewhere or it's very difficult. So an ounce of prevention is definitely the best situation we could have is to keep these areas intact because once they're degraded and we have to start replanting, it's a mammoth effort.
Has that actually happened? We've had to actually bring water into water things?
Oh, yeah, yeah. We're very limited here. What restoration techniques we can use. So one thing we do a lot of is we bury willow steaks in the ground in wet areas because then they have a chance if we're planting trees, we can use the tree diapers that kind of slowly leak out water, but then you have to refill the diaper every week. So it's a lot more work. And then you have to have the staff to do that or the volunteers to do that. We can't just go plant trees and be like, oh, they'll be fine. It'll rain because it won't. It's very stressful for the environment and the plants and the animals and all of our wild neighbors, they're not doing well when in there's a drought. We haven't experienced this recently. The Dirty Thirties was where we had the last really severe major widespread drought, and we haven't had that in a while.
We've had more of these kind of localized droughts where we're surviving year to year just with the snowpack melting. But we're at the point now this year where our reservoirs are fairly low now because we've had to take out the water to irrigate the land because otherwise nothing will grow. And so if we can't refill those reservoirs next spring with a good snowpack if we don't get enough snow, we're going to be in a really bad situation. So everything right now kind of depends on that annual snowpack and hoping that we get enough to fill those reservoirs and get us through another year.
If we didn't get enough snow, then what would happen?
Well, the reservoirs wouldn't fill. They would be low or empty or whatever situation depending on the amount. And then irrigators wouldn't be able to irrigate. And that's 90% of our water is used for your agricultural irrigation to grow our crops. And a lot of that, those crops are grown to feed the cattle. It's industries are very related cattle and crops here, not all but a good portion. And so it would really impact our agricultural-based economy. We would see prices go up, people getting laid off, and we can probably get through a year or two. But then farmers start having to decide, are we going to sell our land? Are we going to wait a couple years and hope that the drought goes away? What do you do? You're in a pickle. And like I mentioned earlier, we have had long-term droughts of 10 year droughts, 20 year droughts, 50 year droughts. That's what scares me when I look at those tree rings and the data and I see that that's really scary. It is in the back of everyone's mind who works in the kind of environmental sector is like, how do we prepare for this? How do we stop this? And there's lots of things happening to prepare, but some of it you can't prepare for.
And what sort of things are they doing to prepare?
Well, for example, there's a big effort goes into breeding crops that are drought-resilient. So they need much less water, but they still need some, I mean all plants need some water. So that's a big one that has actually saved a ton of water over the years. These drought-resilient crops are amazing. So the irrigation districts, what they do is they adjust the amount of water they give out to the farmers based on the supply. So they're really good at adapting each year to say, okay, we only have this much water this year so we can only give out this much. They are well aware of the situation each year and they are very careful to adjust their numbers. So that's one big thing. But I think in some ways we're having a bit of an environmental awakening where we're starting to realize we can't do things the way we used to do them.
We're in a whole new world now with global warming and climate change where what we did in the past doesn't work and it literally is a whole new world. We've never had a world this hot where we've had humans living. We've never had a world with this type of weather. So we have to get rid of our old thinking and really focus on innovation and adapting. And you see this more with the younger crowd. They have a very different perspective of why isn't this happening. I thought this was the way it should be. We protect the environment first, and that doesn't make sense to me. We work with students from the university and college and they ask a lot of questions, but they don't understand why is this happening, what is going on? Why isn't the environment the first thing that we think of to protect our clean air and our clean water and our soil? And so I see a lot of hope. I think humans are very smart and resilient and adaptable, and we're going to change very quickly whether we like it or not because we're very good at changing when we have to and it's getting to the point where we have to. And so I think there's going to be big changes happening very quickly and it'll be hopefully for the better and where we'll see more of a focus on that foundation, the environment is our foundation.
Next, I would learn exactly how our climate has changed over the decades in Alberta and what we can expect in the future.
Hi, my name is Stefan Kienzle. I'm a professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge, and I was working at the Department of Geography and Environment. When we talk about climate change in the media, they talk about this one and a half degrees warmer and this means nothing for the average person. The average person says one and a half degrees warmer. That's great. I don't mind it being a bit warmer. What's wrong with that? But I wanted to look behind the data. And so when we talk about climate change, it's always about these big averages that are completely meaningless. And I said, let's put some sensor to the data. And so basically when you picture a graph of daily temperature and then you can basically from this graph for this one location, you can say, well, how many days over 30 degrees did I have? How many frost days did I have?
How many days? Below 18, which is basically when you turn your heater on, how many days above 21 when you turn your air conditioner on? Those kind of things. And so I basically could do this for each year of my data. And if I have 68 years of this dataset, now I can have a time series. I have a trend, how was this in the 1950s compared to today? And so I could do this eventually I did this for 55 different climate indices. So let's take again this example of days over 30 degrees, which of course is something we experiencing actually right these days. So if you look back in Calgary for instance, in the 1950s you had on average you had an average two days per year there was over 30 degrees. Well, now we have that for weeks without interruption. So obviously the climate has very, very much changed.
And so then I provided this data set, and once I had this data set with all this information, and we had this discussion in the lab and we said, Hey, we can map this and why don't we map it in a way that it's available for all Albertans? And then for me, it's one of those rare things in life, the stars kind of aligned because I had a knock on my office door and Christine is standing in the doorframe, and Christine was a media student who was a brilliant, as it turned out, web designer, and she was looking for a master's project. And so we had a chat within half an hour, we had it all laid out. We said, you are going to take my climate data and you're going to make that into an interactive website that then is available to all Albertans.
And we worked on this thing then for a year and a half together, and it was hard work. We had to solve a lot of little hurdles. But at the end of the day, this is the site that is online, Alberta climate is a site that she's still hosting. And we made one update about I think four or five years later. So the latest version only goes up to 2017. We haven't had the chance to update the data yet, but the message is very, very clear. So if you dive into the data and you ask yourself, well, how has my climate changed and how does it impact me in my own backyard? So when you look at growing season, growing season has lengthened by between two and five weeks per year. So that is significant. So that means that for the farmers and for the ranchers, they have a bit more leeway early in the spring and later in the fall of when to seed or when to put the harvest in.
But all that comes of course, also with the trouble of climate change and the impact. Other things that was really surprising for me was you expected that we have more heat waves and heat waves in Alberta have between doubled and four folded right across Alberta. So way, way more of these heat waves that we all experiencing now. But what was a big surprise for me was also that cold spells have also doubled too quadrupled in the same time period. And that was something that I didn't expect with climate warming, how can we have more cooling areas? But this is the thing that climate change, and I think we all have experienced this especially in the last four or five years, is that we are going from a normal summer day to extreme heat and then to extreme cold, a real cold furnace coming. Remember just a few years ago we had 60 centimeters of snow in September, which was really hard for the farmers and the ranchers and just us house owners or traffic users and all this.
And so that was a big surprise. So it really is the climate extremes going from one extreme, an extreme heat wave to then to straight to a cold spell. And we have read about this in the media all around Canada and abroad of course, that a region experiences a drought and forest fires and it's just horrible. Everything is dry and then comes the flood, then comes the rain, and they have way too much rain and it goes from really from one extreme to the other extreme. And a flood event after a rain, after a forest fire is one of the worst things that can happen. It is horrible because there's a very interesting thing about carbon, about the black stuff that's on the ground. It's ash, it's just wooden residue, right? And carbon is hydrophobic. So if you take your garden hose and sprinkle it over a burned area, it would not infiltrate.
It would just basically build a water bubble on top of that carbon and not infiltrate and then basically eventually just run off on the surface. And if you have a downpour, a good thunderstorm over a burned area, that means the water can infiltrate into the ground and then later come out slowly as groundwater and feed the rivers. Instead it just accumulates on the ground and runs off. And when it's runoff, it then concentrates in certain areas and the low-lying areas, it erodes into the ground and it removes the top. So it removes the nutrient layer, the very rich layer that maintains the forest for dozens and hundreds of years. And so basically a rainfall after a forest fire after wildfire means we have a lot of soil erosion and that erosion ends up in the river causing a whole bunch of water quality issues.
And of course it's gone for the area that wants to regrow a forest again. And so that has major impacts. So we are living at a time where we go from one extreme to the next extreme. Everything from forest fires to droughts to floods, to windstorms, to hailstorms, they all have increased and we have to learn how to live with this. The sad thing is, and I think we all again also experience that, is there's really no place in Canada or anywhere else on the planet where you can hide from these extreme weather events. And so no matter where you are, there are certain events that you have to anticipate, and that means we have to just simply prepare for that. I mean, I prepared for instance, for increased hailstorms, and I experienced it here where within 11 days I had two hailstorms where you had over golf ball size hail, and my yard back home in Lethbridge was basically defoliated.
So I had hardly any leaves left on my trees, and of course I had damage to my roof and I had damage to my fences and other things. And so I'm building, I have rebuilt a stronger, I have better tiles on my roof. I am insulating my home. I make sure that my house is well insulated so that I don't need too much heating in the winter and too much cooling in the summer. My air conditioner only jumped in twice this year, and I'm proud of that because obviously my insulation work has helped me to reduce that electricity cost. And so there are things that we can all do in order to reduce our carbon footprint to just prepare for what's about to come in terms of extreme weathers, a lot of people when they think about climate change, they're saying that's a future thing.
Climate change is a future thing. It's a present thing. We living it, we write in it. The last five years have all had very extreme weathers. So we right now in a drought, our reservoirs are dry. We have water restriction advisories not enforced yet in Lethbridge, but I think there should enforce them. I think the public should be more aware of this. I believe the same thing how we get warned about extreme events like extreme thunderstorm warning. We also should get warnings about droughts because drought is being monitored by our governments. We have various ways how to measure drought and how to index drought and saying this is a severe drought versus not so severe drought. And I think we are heading to a potentially very severe drought. When you look at farmers are putting in the harvest weeks earlier than normal, and dryland farmers have often nothing to harvest because it was just way too dry and too hot for the crops to do any meaningful yields for them.
Big, big problems. The irrigation reservoirs are basically empty. There is not much left. And basically they have already announced that they will stop supplying irrigation water to the irrigators earlier this year because they're running out of water. When I looked at my climate change website and established those numbers, I not only looked at the average change in temperature, I looked at the change in temperature in winter, summer, spring, and fall, and the winter temperatures have increased by far the most. So the winters are getting much, much warmer than they used to. The winters are getting shorter, and when the winters are shorter, that means there's less time for winter snowpack to accumulate and grow and build this good lush snowpack that can then run off. Also, what happens of course with a warming winter is we have more precipitation falling as rain in the winter than as snow.
So when you have precipitation falling as rain that runs off into the river. And so that means our rivers are actually higher in stream flow now in the winter than they used to be. But that comes at a big price that the river flow in the summer and especially in the late summer and fall are extremely low right now. The Oldman River is very, very shallow, and that is simply the result of lack of precipitation and the lack of last year's snow pack, which would keep the summer flows running if there would've been enough, but there hasn't been enough. It runs off, it melted off and it went into the river and ran off in the spring, and now there is little water left for us. So that means the whole dynamic of the watershed has changed in the last decades, and that is something that also we need to adapt to. If you were someone who wants to pump water out of a river, well, you have to prepare that the river runs dry by the end of the year.
During this conversation, I learned a new term - flash drought.
So a flash drought is like a flash flood is an unforeseen event that comes very suddenly and a fresh drought is simply when you have a heat dome over an area for long enough for a few weeks that it basically sucks the moisture out of the soil and the soil is big, which was fine before, but now it is so dry that you can't grow crops on us anymore. And so then you go from a normal situation to a drought situation within a few weeks. And that of course freaks the farmers out because that's something that can happen anytime, anywhere and it is happening in our areas. And that's why our farmers are, yeah, they're in trouble. If you're not an irrigator, if you're a dryland farmer, you rely on what nature provides you from above. And if you're an irrigation farmer, you rely on what happens in the mountains.
So they watch the mountains versus you as a dryland farmer, you just watch the sky. And if that's not providing you with a goodies that you want, then we go back to the dirty thirties, the dust bowl areas, and that is something that I mentioned regularly to my students is that this is the biggest threat that southern Alberta has is another dust bowl. It's just a matter of time when it comes. Statistically speaking, in a way we are actually overdue with a drought and a drought with climate change on top of that is going to be pretty disastrous. The problem why a drought is so disastrous is not only basically the irrigation farmers, once the irrigation dams are out of water, well, you have no more water to irrigate with. The dryland farmers are just watching their crop do nothing. The ranchers with their hertz, they don't know where to get the feed from.
We have to all be reminded that roughly 50% of the grains we are growing, both dryland and irrigated are going for feed to the ranchers. So if we can't grow enough food, we don't have enough feed for the ranchers, that means they have to cull the herds or truck in the grain from somewhere else. And hay belts are very expensive and very heavy, so there's only a limited distance from which you can then import, for instance, hay for feed. And so when you have an area, let's say southern border is under drought, and that may spread into Saskatchewan and maybe other areas as well. So now everyone is without feed, everyone is in the same problem, and we now have to start culling herds. And if you start doing that, you can't bring those herds back up quickly in a year again. So that means all these things, a drought would have a multi-year effect on the producers. And when the soil is bone dry, it takes a really big several large rainfall events to replenish that soil moisture storage. And if they stay away, well then the soil keeps being dry and is basically not being able to be managed by the farmers.
I wonder about if we are adapting to these changes and if it requires policy, if it requires individual action, do you feel like those kinds of changes could be made in time for what that future climate might look like if it's getting more extreme or it's getting hotter and shorter winters, do you have any concerns about that? As far as adapting appropriately as the climate changes?
I'm very worried that we are not adapting fast enough. And I think that adaptation process, the first thing is that you aware of an issue, aware of a problem that it is becoming a problem. I said, I have a problem and I will have to deal with it. So we are already living, as we said earlier, in an area where climate change is happening. We live in already I think pretty extreme climate events every year all around us. And when you look at what we can expect in the future is that the future will not be prettier, the future will be more extreme than what we observe today. We will have more floods, more droughts, more extreme events than we can observe right now. And so this is something that is the new normal, that is just how it's going to be and whatever events we've witnessed this year and have to deal with them, well next year we will have similar events again, maybe more forest fires.
So for me, one of the worst days is if it's 35 degrees outside and I can't open my windows at night because we have forest fire smoke and the air quality is too poor, do I want to cool my house or do I want to breathe in bad air? Those are bad decisions either way. There's no good coming out of any side or turn my air conditioner on, which I refuse to do only under extreme conditions. So these are all things that we have to deal with, and it has to start then that we are aware of this. I insulate my house, I am aware of my water consumption. If the city says, Hey, we are running out of water, well then I don't irrigate my lawns, that's fine. I don't have any problems with that, but we need everyone to do the same thing.
Yeah, it seems like there's also a certain amount of forecasting and planning too, right? Especially if there's these knock-on effects and if you're having droughts and fires and smoke and all these other things happening at the same time, it seems like you almost have to, I guess the word that comes to mind for me is resilience. You talk about this is the new normal and things are changing, and that's fine. Obviously, we're trying to make things better and people are trying to do their best, but if things are changing, we need to adapt to that. I guess when I think about, you talked about earlier that kind of, I guess you'd call it maybe a worst case scenario of that, back to the dirty thirties, if it's okay, we're running out of water now, we can't grow crops now, we can't have cattle now suddenly it becomes a much bigger problem than just maybe individuals and reducing their water. So I guess, has your research been used to help with some of that planning, saying that we need to adapt and maybe be more resilient? Has there been reception to that?
Well, my research has basically always been to provide answers to what situation do we have to deal with, which practical situation do you have to deal with? I did a research project a few years ago where I asked myself, let's look at the two major irrigation reservoirs in Southern Albert, the Old Man reservoir, and the St. Mary's Reservoir. And let's see if under future climate predictions or scenarios, will we have the same inflows into those reservoirs? Will those reservoirs run dry more often? And the answer is yes, there will we lose a lot of water even if we had the same precipitation in the future, which is going to be more or less on average, we are going to have the same precipitation here in Southern Alberta. The biggest problem is that with a warming climate with higher temperatures, we also have more evaporation. That means water is lost from the reservoirs, lost from the soil, and goes back into the atmosphere, and that water is just gone.
And so if you have more loss back into the atmosphere, that means effectively your rainfall is less. We have to then deal with less water in an already water-scarce region. And we talked already about weather extremes, about winters that did not provide enough precipitation and hopefully some winters that do. And so that means, of course, if we have what we call a winter drought followed by a summer drought, well then the reservoirs have very little inflow. And now we have, the situation that we have right now is where the reservoirs are virtually empty, and that is something that will happen unfortunately more often
Next time on the Old Man Watershed. I learn about the importance of riparian areas and why lakes are important to watersheds.
Any activities that happen in that watershed, that area of land that drains into a lake can often be picked up in the lake itself. So lakes become these really kind of focal points on the landscape for environmental change.
My Heads, the Old Man Watershed season was produced by Michael Bartz in partnership with Environment Lethbridge. Special thanks to all the guests who gave generously of their time and expertise.

I'm tryin' save the planet, oh will someone please save me?

This season was made possible with financial assistance from Land Stewardship Centre's Watershed Stewardship Grant, funded by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas. Opinions expressed in this season are those of In Over My Head.