Upper Bow Basin Natural Capital Study

The watershed of the Upper Bow River is an internationally recognized icon of natural beauty which lies upstream of the burgeoning metropolis of Calgary and its surrounding bedroom communities. The Bow River watershed possesses an exceptional abundance of natural resources, including forests, grasslands, rivers, diverse flora and fauna, and majestic scenery. During the past several decades, a rapid increase in intensity of overlapping land uses has occurred within the watershed, as settlements, rural residential, croplands, forestry, livestock grazing, oil and gas extraction, hydro-electrical, hunting, fishing, and non-motorized and motorized recreation have all grown to satisfy an expanding human population and increasing regional, national, and international demand for renewable and non-renewable resources. Given the intensive pace of land use in this headwaters region and further downstream, it is not surprising that the Bow River is Alberta’s most regulated (dams, reservoirs) main stem river, is fully allocated in terms of water use, and has many stakeholder communities concerned about water scarcity in a world increasingly shaped by climate change.

In 2010, Action for Agriculture received funding for the Natural Capital Project (Phase 3) from the Bow River Basin Council , Government of Alberta, Royal Bank of Canada (Blue Water Project, Rocky View County, Calgary Regional Partnership, Hanen  Society, Municipal District of  Big Horn ) to explore and assess temporal and spatial changes in the fiscal performance of  natural capital accounts of the Upper Bow River Basin. The natural capital project contrasted both business-as-usual (BAU) and beneficial management practices (BMP).   

The results of the analyses are clear and consistent with published literature. Historical land use trajectories have created significant benefits to classic economic performance indicators (GDP, employment, sector-­specific revenue) while concurrently causing significant economic loss to natural capital accounts. It would appear that historical land use decisions have been made based on a priority focus on classical economic indicators with inadequate attention to their consequences to natural capital. Of the various forms of natural capital examined in this study,key losses to the following accounts have occurred as a result of historic and ongoing landscape transformation: 

•  Accelerated runoff of precipitation to mainstem rivers and reduced recruitment into aquifers.   

•  Increased surface runoff of sediment and nutrients  to mainstem rivers, causing a reduction in surface water quality, which has  in turn   lead to greater dependency on costly technological solutions to make water potable  for downstream users . 

•  Reduced biotic carbon (vegetation, LFH, soil) because of intensive cropland agriculture (reduced soil organics), additive disturbances to forests (fire and logging), and transformation of natural plant communities to anthropogenic features (transportation, settlements). 

•  Loss of food production potential because of historic incremental loss of cropland and grazing land to expanded urban footprint and rural residential  developments. 

•  Reduced tourism /recreation potential caused by a landscape that looks progressively less natural and has reduced ecological function.