Is there hope for the Sturgeon River?

By Derek Richmond

At 94 years of age, Mary James looks at you with wide, clear eyes. Mary, with a knowing smile recalls her earlier tirnes in the Sturgeon Basin. "Some people used Ross's Trucking to deliver water from the river; - used to deliver for 25c a barrel. Even the jackfish were good eating then," says Mary. "The river was of course much wider then. We seemed to have better water then and more of it".

Ray Pinco, a sprightly 70-plus retired school prindpal recalls the time before refrigerators were available.

"How did we keep our food-stuffs cool & fresh? Well, ice from the river & Big Lake was cut out in blocks and mixed with sawdust. It formed a kind of permafrost material that lasted almost all year."

In the metropolitan area to the south, Edmontonians once coveted the Sturgeon for its recreational potential. Immediately west of the wooden railway trestle bridge in St. Albert, the Club Nautique du St. Albert constructed a two-story clubhouse, complete with tennis courts, where the Edmonton Canoe Club set up its headquarters. The August 20, 1913 issue of the St.Albert Star reported: "[Edmonton] will begin to wonder why it remained so long ignorant of this beautiful river and lake [Big Lake], and allowed the swift and treacherous [North] Saskatchewan to levy its tribute of death upon pleasure seekers." The next year saw the launching of the paddle wheeler St. Theresa, that provided Sunday and holiday excursions on Big Lake.

Like so many people, Mary's family depended on the Sturgeon. However, it wasn't until her husband set off to serve in the war and she was left living on her own with small children in the bush that she relocatted to St. Albert. Mary set up home in a tent on the bank of the river, below where City Hall is now located.

"We used the water for everything.The water was soft for washing clothes and we had a well beside the river. Everyone took water from it because they loved the taste of the tea & coffee."

The early inhabitants have long gone, but on a late fall day, stand near the long-forgotten ruins of the old stone tipi rings on the south-west shores of Big Lake and listen to the wind.You can feel the spirits of the past ftom this once richly forested watershed.The Sturgeon River basin, once abundant with wildlife and plentiful with plants, has undergone more transformation in the last one hundred years than in all its time since its formation after the last ice age, 8,000 years ago.

Long before the arrival of Father Lacombe in 1861, the Sturgeon River was known by the Cree as nii-koo-oo-pom (Red Willow River). It was a fertile hunting and fishing ground and its shores and those of Big Lake supported the "Tamarack Trail", an important transportation route for indigenous peoples to move within and between major watersheds - the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca.

Two years after the Riel Rebellion of 1870, the first bridge west of the Great Lakes was constructed across the Sturgeon River at St.Albert.The bulding of the bridge opened opportunities for transporta-tion and development and changed the way of life in and around the Sturgeon River forever.The Sturgeon had valuable assets that figured prominently in the development of the area. Its water powered a gristmill and lumber mill at the site of a dam constructed about thirty kilometers downsream of St. Albert. About six years after the bridge at St. Albert was constructed, turbine and sawmill machinery were hauled in from the United States and installed at the site where a three-meter high and thirty-meter long dam was constructed.

Development brought rapid change to the Sturgeon. Competing water demands from agriculture, irrigation for golf courses and sod farms, oil and gas development and gravel extraction operations mean that the river is often reduced to little more than a muddy trickle; barely adequate for a dwindling fish population. More than 600 approved water withdrawals take place in the basin. Less than half of this water is returned to the river.

"It can rain for a week now and the river doesn't come up. Why is that," asks Mary. On the Sturgeon on the north side of Big Lake, it was common in Mary's generation to pull out 20 pound sturgeon fish from deep pools north of Big Lake. Sturgeon haven't been caught or sighted for more than 25 years and those fish that do remain are northern pike and stickleback.

While the history and watershed of the Sturgeon are unique, its plight is not. Countless rivers and water-courses in North America have disappeared or degraded as a result of progress and its ensuing development. The Los Angeles River had been the sole water supply for the City of Los Angeles before the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913 - and almost disappeared from public consciousness.

When anyone thought of the Los Angeles River at all, it was as a flood control channel, a storm drian and an open sewer. About 75% of the 85 kolometre river was encased in concrete by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a massive flood project that began in 1938 and didn't end until the late 1950's. Now through public education, legislation and volunteer groups, the river is now re-emerging as it once was.

Just over 200 years ago, when Europeans began settle in what is now Toronto, the Don River was a clear, cold stream teeming with fish. It emptied into Ashbridge's Marsh, a vast wetland at the edge of Lake Ontario. The marsh was a haven for fish, waterfowl and many animals. That was before the Gardiner Expressway, the 401, the Don Valley Parkway and a host of other concrete and asphalt footprints obscured whatever small remnant of the river remained after industrial and urban sprawl had diverted, pipe and canalled the river. Today, many initiatives are underway to revitalize and restore the Don, Taddle, Garrison and other waterways to their pre-development days.

The Sturgeon River is a small cousin of the North Saskatchewan. It is only 259 km long and drains a watershed of a little more than 3,600 square kilometers - about five and a half times the size of the present City of Edmonton. South of the Yellowhead Highway and just to the East of the Pembina River, nestled amongst aspens and willows, lies an inconspicu-ous, small, spring-fed lake. In the fall, orange and yellow leaves paint a vivid contrast against its dark and quietly bub-bling waters. Hoople Lake, the Sturgeon's headwaters start the rivers course that traverses Lake Isle, Lac St. Anne, Devil's Lake (Cree: Matchayaw Lake) and Big L-tke on its way to con-fluence with the North Saskatchewan River, just down-stream of Ft. Saskatchewan.

Between Lac Isle and Lac Ste. Anne, cattle have destroyed riparian vegetation and river-banks and have been banned from some areas where fecal coliform counts became excessive. Unimposing as is might be the Sturgeon has endured the abuse of unprecedented development and growth. It fought to survive the discharge of human sewage effluent. Now sewage is conveyed to a central waste treatment plant but other hardships continue to assail the Sturgeon.

The river has endured further injury from storm outfalls that have deposited sediment barriers to fish migration. Shopping carts are an eyesore amongst the migrating waterfowl and busy beaver Where once grew wild riparian flowers, dense vegetation from invading species and aquatic weeds, fed by fertilizer runoff now dominate. Few old growth trees remain in the basin and those that do are unlikely to survive as prairie forest islands.

"This tree was a sapling at the time that Father Lacombe founded the community of St. Albert," says Dr. Peter Murphy, a retired biology professor, as he points to a section from an old stand of white spruce in the floodplain of the Sturgeon. "There are few of these stands left now and with them goes a vanety of wildlife that rely on this type of environment". Development has severed natural pathways and corridors that once carried an abundance of wildlife through the basin, from bear, moose and cougar to deer, wolves and a host of wildfowl.

A mix of government policy, volunteer lobbyists and efforts to enhance public awareness are slowly infusing into society Efforts are underway to develop management plans to protect and fairly allocate water for competing uses.

Steps are being taken to conserve land in its natural condition and to restrict developments that could impede the river's health. Recent studies in the Sturgeon River Basin and the recent designation of Big Lake as a "Special Place 2O00" -- which recognizes its importance as a wildfowl staging area -- have helped draw attention to the plight of the river However, this is just the start of a long and hard battle to save what we have remaiming of a once rich and healthy watershed.

Communities are awakening to the urgency of the rivers' demise. These initiatives will not come cheaply or easily They will have to compete against development and economics. However, understanding its true econoniic value means appreciating an asset worthy of protection that adds value to the quality of life, provides opportunities for ecotourism and recreation revenue and provides a legacy for the future.

Mary's friend, Teresa Lavoie, resident in St. Albert for the past 75 years, visited her old farmstead west of St. Albert last year. "I walked by the river with my grandchildren. Dead fish were all around. I don't want to leave this to them", she says. However, examples of river restoration in North America and England such as the Wick, Wye, Wandle and Thames where fishing is once again enjoyed might give hope to Mary and Teresa's concerns for future generations.

Awareness and understanding of the fragility of the river and its importance to communities as a source of beauty, health and recreation is vital. "People should be very careful what they put into the river. There are things that didn't go into the river that go in it now," says Mary. Perhaps our future generations will have the privilege to stand near the old stone tipi rings, feel the spirits of generations gone and take in the beauty of the Sturgeon River.

Derek Richmond is a Professional Engineer, Chartered Scientist and a Chartered Water & Environmental Manager.