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The Importance of Protecting Headwaters

Are you a carbon based life-form that enjoys drinking water? Then you should care about protecting the headwaters of our great rivers.

Welcome to the first edition of Stories from the Mountain.

Today’s story literally comes straight out of the Mountains. 

Four of Canada’s great river systems originate in the Canadian Rockies just to the West of the city of Calgary.

  • The Athabasca
  • The Saskatchewan
  • The Fraser 
  • The Columbia

Today we are going to focus on 2 rivers that are part of the Saskatchewan basin that are important for Calgarians.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Calgary’s Water Supply

The Canadian Rockies have been called one of the water towers of the Earth.

People all across these watersheds rely on rain and melt waters from the winter’s snowpack and glaciers within the Canadian Rockies, especially 1.4 million Calgarians, like me. 

The Elbow and Bow Rivers are an important part of the South Saskatchewan basin, and supply all of Cal;gary’s drinking water. 

The Bow rises on the continental divide in Banff National Park at Bow Lake and Bow Glacier (show a picture of Bow Lake), and is joined by the Kananaskis river where the Eastern Slopes and Foothills meet west of Calgary before flowing eastward to the City. 

The Elbow river originates in the Front ranges of the Canadian Rockies in Kananaskis country, with the dwindling Rae glacier and Elbow Lake as its source. 

40% of our water supply comes from the Elbow River through the Glenmore Reservoir and Water treatment plant, which supplies most of South Calgary, while 60% comes from the Bow River via the Bearspaw reservoir and water treatment plant supplying most of North Calgary.

Why it's important to Protect Head waters

So why do we care about this water supply? Water is obviously important. The only known life forms in the universe exist because of water. That’s you and me! 

So obviously we need a clean source of drinking water. But these river systems also supply us with water for generating power (about 3% in Alberta and 87% in BC), agriculture and industry. We wouldn’t be here without the Bow and Elbow rivers

And of course recreation. Our headwaters create beautiful scenery for hiking in areas like Lake Louise and Moraine lake, and provide excitement on the Bow and Kananaskis rivers while in a canoe, kayak or raft. 

Nearly 4 billion people worldwide rely on High Mountain water, like that trapped within the snowpack and glaciers of the Canadian Rockies.

What are the main Threats to our Headwaters?


The Bow and Elbow Rivers recorded their lowest flow rate in 125 years during the summer of 2022 and the Bow Recorded its lowest levels ever in Calgary during the summer of 2023.

The Rockies have been called the epicentre of our current drought conditions, which have been attributed to our warming climate induced by human activity.

Typically glaciers provide just 3% of the water entering Calgary’s water supply, which acts as an important source during the late summer when most of the snowpack is gone. 

But during recent extreme heat events that number has climbed to 20%, which has resulted in some main glaciers like the Athabasca shrinking by 9 metres in depth last summer! It is estimated that almost all of the glaciers in the Canadian Rockies will be gone by the end of the century, and with them, the fabulous blue-green colour of mountain lakes like Louise, Moraine and Bow. (Cut to images of lakes)

Combine that with several seasons in a row with lower than average snow and rainfall and you can see a problem. 

The snow-cover period in the Canadian Rockies has declined by anywhere from four to six weeks since the early 1970s. Less snow, later beginning to the snowfall and earlier start to the melt.


Most of the unprotected areas of the Bow River headwaters fall within Kananaskis Country and the Ghost Watershed where logging, oil and gas and mining activity can still take place and contribute to pollution of our headwaters. 

Although coal mining does not pose a direct risk to Calgary’s drinking water, there are significant threats due to proposed open pit coal mining projects and pollution that comes along with it in the Old Man river basin, which makes up an important part of Saskatchewan river watershed. Thankfully, these projects have been paused for the time being. 

Deforestation can cause higher risk of flooding, especially on the steep mountain  slopes surrounding the headwaters relied upon by Calgarians, as well as an increase in erosion, which can directly affect our water quality. 

There is also evidence that deforestation can increase drought conditions making the problem of low water in our rivers worse.


Thankfully much of the headwaters that supply Calgary are protected within Provincial and National Parks (long may they be). But not all of them are protected and some still face threats from industry, while all of them face the threat of drought caused by our changing climate. 

The threats facing our headwaters all boil down to human activity whether that be through climate change or misuse of land. 

If we can’t protect the headwaters, the source of the source of our water, there isn’t much hope to protect our waters further downstream.

Written by: Bryce Willigar
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