Monday, November 9, 2015

Heart Waters: land use and the shrinking of Alberta’s rivers

Author Kevin Van Tighem with collaborator and son Brian Van Tighem

Josh Davis

On Wednesday November 4, 2015 Kevin Van Tighem gave a public presentation at Lundbreck Hall, serving to sign and sell copies of his book, Heart Waters – Sources of the Bow River, as well as to discuss land use and the shrinking of Alberta’s rivers. Heart Waters was written by Kevin Van Tighem and photographed by his son Brian Van Tighem. The book sales also served as a fundraiser for the Livingstone Landowners Group (LLG).

“This is kind of a special occasion, to have Kevin Van Tighem down to introduce his new book,” said Livingstone Landowners Guild President Ted Smith. “It’s also important to the Livingstone Landowners,” added Smith, explaining that money raised from the book would go to the Livingstone Landowners. “The primary focus of the Livingstone Landowners Guild is to ensure humane consultation and participation with industry and government in planning for future development. This is necessary to protect human health, groundwater resources, native prairie grass ecosystems, air quality, existing property values, health of cattle, and the ascetic value of a remarkable landscape.”
Ted Smith introducing Kevin Van Teghem
“And now I’d like to introduce Kevin Van Tighem. Kevin Van Tighem was born and raised in Calgary. a fourth generation Albertan, his family’s roots in what is now rural Alberta date back to 1875, he and his wife live in Canmore and own property along the Oldman River north of Cowley. He has a degree in climatology from the University of Calgary, and worked as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service. In 1985 Kevin joined Parks Canada, and subsequently worked in Jasper, Yoho, and Waterton Lakes National Park. Kevin is the author of eleven books on wildlife and conservation, as well as numerous magazine and journal articles. His newest book produced in collaboration with photographer Brian Van Tighem is Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River, and was released this fall. Kevin has written more than 200 articles, stories, and essays on conservation and wildlife, which garnered many awards, including Western magazine awards, Outdoors Writers of Canada book and magazine awards, and the Journey Award for Nonfiction.” Kevin has been a supporter of the LLG for about six years, and has been on the board for three years.

Kevin Van Tighem was well spoken, confident and smiling throughout the evening. He opened by remarking on the particularly rare opportunity to have the book signed by both him and photographer Brian Van Tighem. “This book was a particular joy to work on because it was collaboration between father and son,” said Kevin. He also explained he is on the board of the LLG.  “They devote an awful amount of their time and their resources to try and make sure that all of the things that we love and value about this place are respected and protected as change happens.” Kevin then explained that he has a personal connection to the Bow River and its headwaters, calling Court Creek tributary the “sacred river” of his childhood. “The anecdotal pieces are actually a really big part of the book,” Kevin explained. He then read a passage of his book, detailing his youthful experiences trout fishing with his father at the Court Creek tributary. He also explained that he had often fished in the Bow River as a youth, since his catholic family only had the opportunity to make the trip to a tributary on Saturday. Kevin explained that each chapter in his book is structured around visiting a different headwaters, exploring the path our water takes, and how our decisions influence them. 

“A lot of people figure that the Bow River starts in Bow Glacier because that’s what the geographers tell us. That the head of the Bow River is the glacier. Well, the head of the Bow River is at every single place that the water comes out of the ground in its entire drainage,” said Kevin. “But because of that a lot of people think glaciers are very important to the flow of the Bow River. They don’t think that so much about the Oldman, we don’t have any glaciers in our headwaters anymore. We did. And the Bow won’t soon won’t have any either, but the truth is that the Bow River only gets about 2% of annual flow from glaciers.” Kevin explained that glaciers become more important in the summer, because of the lack of snow melt and minimal rain. “The summer flow of the Bow River is actually sustained to a significant degree by glaciers, and those glaciers are melting fast,” he said. “I think one of the first big shocks we’re going to have about half past this century is when people realize how small and warm that river’s going to be in the summer.”

However, Kevin said that from a big picture point of view, the glacier is not particularly important to the river. “The river gets all of its water from the ocean. But that ocean water mostly comes to us as snow. About 80% of the water in the Bow River, and I would say more than that of the water that’s in the Oldman River, comes from snow.” He explained that this need for the snow to melt into the ground leaves a small area of water gain for the rivers. “Most of the water that comes to us comes from the winter snows at higher elevations, and that’s not a very big piece of the landscape.” He also explained that canopy snow, such as snow trapped in pine trees, mostly does not make it into our stream. However, tree cover remains important for providing wind break, which would result in that water being expended during the spring, rather than later in the summer when it is more needed.

Later Kevin explained that they used a helicopter for the photography in the books, showing the effect of humanity on our headwaters. He used these as a visual aid while he explained the effects that traditional forestry is having on our water systems, as a lack of trees to serves as shade could result in flooding, and dirt kicked up by motor vehicles can he harmful to bull trout. "We could have forestry in our headwaters. I would argue that we probably should," said Kevin. "But it should be a very different kind of forestry."

Kevin was also critical of damage dealt to headwaters by off-road vehicle operators. "I'm not anti-off-road vehicle. Actually, I guess in my heart of hearts I am. But from a policy view I'm not. But if you're going to have them, for gods sake build proper trails, and don't let them go where they shouldn't go." He then showed some examples of headwaters that have been well protected. "In some places we do get it right. We just have to get it right everywhere else."

Kevin then read from a chapter discussing the future of water scarcity, and flooding in the spring. "Climate models are in general agreement that more winter precipitation will fall as rain than as snow in the future, and that extreme weather events of longer duration are increasingly likely. Big floods as well as big droughts are virtually guaranteed in this already water short region. Alberta's water crisis is upon us." Kevin said that damming is not a perfect solution, due to evaporation. "Dams waste water, they devastate rivers, destroy native fish docks, and cost a fortune to build and maintain. And even the largest of dams hold back only a small portion of the available spring run-off. A far more elegant solution to the water supply conundrum is simply to store the water in the headwaters landscape itself." Kevin also spoke of the differences between watershed protection now and in his youth, and then wrapped up by read another passage from his book,

Following his presentation, Kevin fielded questions from the audience."I spent about two and a half years researching this darned thing, including taking hydrology courses, and spending a lot of time interviewing people that were subject matter experts. I feel very confident that I knew what I was talking about, and that I did the research to get the facts I needed to build this book," said Kevin about researching the book.

"I fell in love with this landscape when I was still a preteen. I spent my whole life in them, watched the changed, and at this stage in my life now where its time to give something back," said Kevin of his inspiration for writing Heart Waters. "The book was a way to take a lifetime of experience, to take the passion that comes from watching change effect things that I care about, and pour that into a books that will hopefully give those places the kind of future they deserve."

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