Bighill Creek and its Watershed Plans
By Vivian Pharis, VP, BCPS
Bighill Creek’s Watershed and Early Planning
Bighill Creek’s 174 sqkm watershed begins as a classic fan, a gathering of slow waters from sprawling, open, cattle lands. There isn’t much water in the upper reaches of this basin. But, when the creek accepts a burst of pristine water from the nationally significant springs at Big Hill Springs Provincial Park, it becomes a bold flow. Below the park, the robust creek enters a narrower valley. Confined by a high sided coulee it descends to Cochrane and the Bow River, gliding past sandstone cliffs, some of which served ancient peoples as buffalo jumps, and slips past steep, forested slopes hiding deer and cougar. Interestingly, the coulee is a remnant of glacial times when impounded meltwaters broke free in a dramatic flood that carved a path to bedrock, in their escape to the Bow River.
In 2007 a tri-creeks watershed initiative was launched by the Town of Cochrane and Rocky View Council, to better understand the three waterways entering the Bow River at Cochrane. Bighill was the last of the three to inspire a group of people to begin planning. Bighill Creek Preservation Society was registered in 2015 and announced a Board of Directors, developed a mission statement, a set of six objectives and began work on four actions aimed at understanding and preserving the watershed.
BCPS begins stewardship work and watershed studies
One BCPS objective is to encourage stewardship, another is to educate about the natural and historic features of the valley. To these ends, BCPS accepted stewardship of a 40 acre RVC reserve in the creek’s bottom, most of it designated “environmental”. Trails through the reserve had suddenly been “discovered” by new Cochrane residents and heavy use began around 2015 – walking, dog walking, running and cycling. There was a sudden need to build a footbridge over the creek, to develop a loop trail, and begin diversions and rehabilitation on the steep, forested side where soils are thin and erodible.
A grant from the Cochrane Foundation allowed BCPS to buy three motion sensor cameras. These were set to work understanding wildlife use in the valley, but one was devoted to monitoring human trail use to enhance stewardship work. BCPS has also set up 7 sites along the trail that are measured and photographed each year for erosion, widening, deepening and root exposure. These will help guide our maintenance program.
Funds were raised in 2016, to begin collecting baseline data through studies towards a watershed plan. The first undertaking was to monitor the quality of stream water. A scientist, Dr. Ymene Fouli, was hired in 2017 to test waters at five sites on the creek and at two springs. These studies are to be repeated in 2019, with, hopefully, the addition of more sampling sites in the upper reaches of the basin.
Another set of funds allowed BCPS to commission a Riparian Health Assessment of the creek in the early summer of 2018. The expertise of Cows and Fish was hired to survey the creek for riparian cover, invasive plants, tree and shrub establishment, state of vegetation and human or livestock damage to stream banks. While provincial waterways score on average, 70% – healthy but with problems, Bighill Creek scored 87%, or generally healthy. We are in great shape, but it will take work to maintain this record in light of increasing recreational pressure on the creek.
The springs contributing most of the flow to Bighill Creek are nationally significant because of their constant year-around flow rate and temperature, as well as their uncommon tufa formations. Of great concern to BCPS are applications for three new gravel mines on the very aquifer of this unusual set of springs, and the lack of responsibility so far shown by Rocky View County for the springs and the provincial park they support. This situation has occupied much of BCPS’s efforts in the past two years.
This valley, so close to a town nearing 30,000 people, is surprisingly full of wildlife. Our cameras helped to show Bighill Creek as home to healthy populations of moose, white tail and mule deer, cougar, fox, coyote and beaver. Our blue heron colony has been hatching up to 8 nests of eggs continuously for at least 100 years. More rarely seen, but caught on camera were a bobcat and a racoon!!! Mink and muskrat are in the creek, along with chorus frogs, wood frogs, tiger salamanders and there used to be a good population of western toads. Garter snakes are abundant. In spring and summer the valley rings with bird calls. Red tailed hawks, horned owls and prairie falcons all nest and hunt in the valley.
A reason for the variety and numbers of wildlife in Bighill Valley is the proximity of the Bow River and the large Glenbow Park along the river. Right now, there is still enough undeveloped land between these two natural valleys to allow a free-flow of wildlife. The main barrier between them though is Highway 1A, with its reputation for killing more wildlife/km than any other highway in Alberta. Plans for vastly increasing residential development on both sides of the highway between Cochrane and Calgary, bode ill for maintaining wildlife numbers.
We are especially interested in fish populations and on a day in June, 2018, at 5 sites on the creek, Trout Unlimited, along with board member Ken Stevenson, caught and released 40-50 fish of a wide variety of species including trout (but not Cutthroat Trout), in the space of 12 minutes, in the lower reaches of the creek. Fish were found in all sites tested. Cochrane Environmental Action Committee has committed to buying temperature loggers that will be placed in the creek this winter/spring in order to better understand if the creek could again support endangered Cutthroat Trout.
Grant funds have been applied for to begin assessing beaver habitat throughout the creek. Funds are also being sought for the purchase of “pond levelers” or “beaver deceivers” to better control water levels in several downstream dams that have been flooding Ranch Road.
Reserve as Laboratory
The small natural reserve so close to Cochrane, is increasingly being seen as an outdoor laboratory for school groups. BCPS is also increasingly asked to talk about the creek and its ecology at Cochrane schools. To better understand the importance of natural areas, BCPS will begin studies of local insect populations on the reserve. Knowing that the world’s insect populations are disappearing at alarming rates, we consider it timely to learn about populations nearer home, and perhaps find out if ours are also in decline. This spring and summer will see a University of Calgary student assess the creek’s aquatic insects. A small grant from the Town of Cochrane has allowed BCPS to purchase two Malaise insect traps from California and these will be tested in the spring of 2019 to begin an educational investigation of terrestrial insects. Several schools have already indicated interest in being involved. Anyone with knowledge of how to undertake such studies is invited to help us.
Another buggy undertaking in the little reserve, is to see if we can naturally control invasive Canada Thistle. To this end, BCPS bought a packet of tiny thistle-eating weevils from Alberta Agriculture and released them in an infested area in 2018. Apparently it can take up to 4 years to see if there has been survival and results.
“Watching moose dive underwater and come up dribbling mud and green stuff from their mouths (see video), researchers in Minnesota wondered how that activity might affect nutrient availability. During its 45-minute feeding bout, a diving moose can disturb 100 square meters of a lake bottom.”
Bighill Creek Preservation Society Newsletter
It has been a busy year for BCPS. One of the things that we’ve allowed to slip is our communication with our supporters. This is our first newsletter, intended to be a regular undertaking and a brief update on our activities.
The BCPS Annual General Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, November 17th at the Spray Lake Family Sports Centre. We’ll cover some of the items below in more detail then. We’ll email a reminder and further details of the AGM as the date approaches.Many thanks to those who’ve offered your volunteer efforts. We have a number of projects coming up. Obviously much of the field work will need to wait till spring but we’ll be in touch as we get organized and set some schedules. Below are some of the issues that have kept us occupied.
Insect Study’s Spring Start
This spring, BCPS will initiate a study of what insects inhabit our environmental reserve within the Bighill Creek valley. We hope to involve local schools in the project, once it is underway. A grant from the Town of Cochrane has allowed BCPS to purchase two Malaise insect traps that will help us begin this work. We are seeking local expertise to help us.
Understanding local insect populations, including what they are, where they live and their health, is globally recognized as increasingly important. Elsewhere it is found that insect populations are equally at risk as are populations of many backboned species, in our increasingly human-dominated world. Insects are integral to the functioning of healthy ecosystems, as well as to our own food production. We need to know and understand them better.
First Year of Water Quality Analysis
A chance meeting of several BCPS board members with Georesources and soils scientist, Dr. Ymene Fouli, originally of Tunisia, proved great happenstance as she has proven a wonderful professional to conduct our first year of water quality studies.
With funds from Alberta Ecotrust, Alberta Land Stewardship Centre, Bow River Basin Council and Cochrane Environmental Action Committee, we have been able to do five sets of analysis of five sites on Bighill Creek, from Highway 567, south to the confluence with the Bow River. Generally, water quality is good to excellent throughout, attesting to healthy riparian habitats down this length. A few contaminate problems have shown up within the Town of Cochrane and higher than expected organic matter occurs above Highway 567. This matter tends to be diluted by the influx of excellent quality water entering from Big Hill Springs.
BCPS is currently applying for grants to conduct a second year of water quality studies to see if last year’s trend continue.
Electrofishing with Trout Unlimited, June 13, 2018
BCPS is excited and encouraged by the results of this first fish study undertaken at four sites along Bighill Creek. The study was facilitated by fisheries biologists Elliot Lindsay and Haley Tunna of Trout Unlimited, assisted by BCPA board member, Ken Stevenson. The lower 5 km of the creek proved to have excellent riparian habitats and harboured a surprising number and variety of fish species. Water temperatures, qualities, volume and pH were all excellent in June.
Near the creek’s confluence with the Bow River, in a space of 12 minutes of electrofishing a 100 m stretch, 23 fish were taken and measured before being released. These included 16 longnose dace, 4 brown trout, 2 native suckers and 1 rainbow trout. Near the Farmer’s Market, 54 fish were taken in 12 minutes from 100 m of water; 26 dace, 14 suckers, 8 brown trout, 4 brook trout and 2 Rocky Mountain whitefish. The next site upstream yielded only dace and suckers, but in the cold waters of Big Hill Springs, at the park, 16 brook trout were taken.
Results of this Trout Unlimited study have been published by BCPS.
Beaver Studies, 2019
Upstream of Cochrane for about 8 km, Bighill Creek is or has been, home to many beavers and their dams. In 2019, BCPS is hoping to raise grant funds to allow the Cows and Fish organization to undertake an in-depth study of the riparian habitat and beaver activities in the lower 8 km of the Creek.
Further, we are planning to test “pond levellers” in several active ponds that threaten to flood Ranche Road in particular. The levellers work to maintain beaver ponds at a certain level, allowing beavers to continue to live and work in the pond without removal and without flooding roads or pastures.
In 2019, Cows and Fish are planning a workshop on the subject of the value of beavers in the ecosystem and the role pond levellers can play.
Mapping the Watershed
Three SAIT students, as part of their studies have a created a series of maps of Bighill Creek watershed. These are very useful in allowing us to visualize various aspects of the drainage. We plan to have one of the students present their work at our AGM.
We have rescheduled our edible plant walk to Sunday, May 6th because the path was too icy. We would like you to join us.If we have a group of 8 people, the cost will be $40.00 per person. This walk is for adult and not suitable for children. There will be a waiver form to fill out.
For more information, please read the following.
Join Full Circle Adventures and Bighill Creek Preservation Society, for an Edible Plant walk on Sunday May 6th, 2018
Learn how to identify the edible and healing plants that grow in the Bighill creek valley. Discover where they grow so you can watch them come up throughout the year. You will learn over 7 edible and healing shrubs, trees and plants and how to use them.
When: from 10 am to 2 pm Where: Meet at the above trail sign, further down the road
What: Bring ice trekkers, just in case. Must sign a Waiver to attend.
Price: $45 per person, bring a cheque or cash
Contact: bighillcreek.ca or email@example.com for more info and to confirm registration
Julie is an IGA certified hiking guide and nature educator. She has interpreted nature to elders, kids and adults, guiding in Southern Alberta for more than 25 years. During this time, she has identified over 500 Prairie, Foothills, Montane, Sub-Alpine and Alpine plants. Sharing her knowledge about this flora, especially the edible plants, has become her passion.
Julie loves teaching everything you need to know about using wild edible plants; identification, growing locations, planting in your own garden if you wish, and sustainable harvesting. Her goal is to help you discover the wisdom of native plants.
Alberta Council for Environmental Education – www.abcee.org/
Interpretive Guides Association – www.interpretiveguides.org/
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – www.cpaws-southernalberta.org/
Wild About Flowers: http://www.wildaboutflowers.ca/
Bow Point Nursery: http://www.bowpointnursery.com/about/
Boreal Herbal by Beverly Gray: http://borealherbal.com/
Re: The inappropriate location of three new gravel pits adjacent to Big Hill Springs:
Bighill Creek Preservation Society (BCPS) was associated in 2015 to protect and preserve the natural, archaeological and historical features of the Bighill Creek watershed. We are particularly concerned about the negative impacts three new gravel pits would have on the source water for Big Hill Springs Provincial Park and the Bighill Creek ecosystem downstream.
The proposed Summit, McNair and Lafarge pits would be located on the aquifer which provides the springs which is the raison d’etre for the Park. (See attached Map BCPS Big Hill Springs Aquifer and Gravel Pits). The pits would remove protective overburden and expose up to 480 acres of the aquifer to contamination and operational de-watering. Applications for these pits are currently under consideration by Rocky View County (RVC).
BCPS is of the opinion that gravels sought by these three companies are common in the area and exist in two large swaths across the northern regions of RVC. It is therefore unnecessary and inappropriate to allow extraction which puts at risk a nationally unique set of Springs and a coveted and heavily used Provincial Park.
Below is a summary of the reasons why BCPS opposes the current site proposals for these three pits.
- Unique Attributes of Big Hill Springs
- Listed in surveys for Alberta’s Environmentally Significant Areas studies, as being of national significance due to unique limestone formations and because of their consistently high and even temperature flows, throughout the year.
- Flow rate of the Springs is higher than that of other nearby springs arising from the Paskapoo geological foundation.
- According to a 2007 Geology Department study from the University of Calgary (attached), the spring’s water arises from fluvial deposits mostly just above the Paskapoo bedrock, and from a recharge area of about 31 square kilometers that trends NW and includes lands under the three proposed gravel pits.
- This recharge area produces a measurable enhancing effect, likely due to several ancient (preglacial) bedrock channels feeding into the aquifer. It is thus known as an “enhanced recharge”, something rather uncommon.
- The Springs contribute a majority of flow into Bighill Creek, supporting the diverse riparian habitat between the Park and the confluence with the Bow River.
- The Springs at the Park make a significant contribution to the water quality of Bighill Creek. BCPS’s 2016-2017 water analyses indicate water quality in Bighill Creek upstream of the Park is of considerably poorer quality prior to dilution by water emanating from the Park.
- Big Hill Springs Provincial Park – Already under stress
- This park was established in 1963 as a 63 acre “point of interest” educational and nature appreciation park. It soon drew so many visitors from nearby Calgary as to show almost immediate deterioration, deterioration that continues today due to tens of thousands of annual visitors.
- Pit operations; with their attendant noise, air pollution, possible aquifer impact and dangerous roadway (Highway 567) congestion will diminish the Park experience for visitors and degrade habitat. This little park needs fewer, not more stresses.
- Adjacent gravel pits are inappropriate for site
- High impact industrial uses of adjacent lands are inappropriate for the sustainability of a unique set of springs and for a highly valued and much used Provincial Park.
- The pits are proposed on one of two extensive gravel/sand deposits occupying wide swaths of RVC land. These same aggregates are accessible from many local but less sensitive lands.
- The aggregate layer targeted by the three pit proposals is 10-20 m of permeable sands and gravels, overlain by a less permeable cap of 4-6 m of silts, clays, sands and gravels. Once this cap is removed, the exposed permeable layers will open the aquifer to contaminates.
- On-site contaminates from fuels and other petroleum products used during extraction, and agrichemicals that can leach into new pits from nearby farmlands, will have little chance of being filtered out before reaching the Big Hill Springs due to the short distance between the pits and the spring’s aquifer.
- The draft Aggregate Resource Plan for RVC emphasized environmental responsibility in new gravel pit sitings. We assume the final document, long in revision, will be stronger still in environmental protections.
BCPS asks RVC:
- That these three gravel pit proposals be reassessed in light of their potential impacts on a unique and important water source, on a publicly valued provincial park, and for their potential impact on the Bighill Creek watershed.
- That the pit’s owners be helped to re-locate to more appropriate locations within RVC.
Monitoring Trail Transformation, Environmental Reserve, Bighill Creek
By Vivian Pharis, Board Member, BCPS
BCPS determined that it would wise to begin a formal set of annual measurements of the main loop trail through the Environmental Reserve that we now steward. I was tasked with setting up a number of measurement sites and with taking the initial photographs and measurements this summer.
I established seven measurement sites along the trail, the first three being on the stretch of the ER trail that is actually on Mt. St. Francis Retreat land. A portion of the ER trail begins at our sign near the last vehicle bridge upstream on Bighill Creek, is on Retreat land that BCPS stewards under a special agreement with Mt. St. Francis. The final four sites lie along the south-side trail, except for site 7 that measures a piece of trail leading from the bridge up to the decommissioned road on the north side of the reserve.
Human use of the ER loop trail has greatly increased in the last few years, and with the example of the very overused and eroded Big Hill Springs Provincial Park at the upper end of the valley, BCPS Board members are concerned that ER trails do not suffer similar overuse.
This is going to mean regular monitoring, and possible use adjustment, trail maintenance and trail re positioning. We have now closed a short, steep portion of the south loop and will begin some rehabilitation of this site. This closed section is now signed and a new, higher trail has been flagged for through use.
This summer BCPS initiated a monitoring program for the loop trail through the Environmental Reserve. Seven sites were chosen for annual measurement in order to monitor erosion. Each site was measured and photographed.
The above two photos show the expanded and very eroded state of trails through Big Hill Springs Provincial Park.
BCPS is hoping to prevent this sort of extreme damage to trails within the Environmental Reserve
The photos above measure other trail segments,
below shows a portion of the Environmental
Reserve loop trail that is already in need of
Annual General Meeting
Bighill Creek Preservation Society
November 18th, 2017
At 13h00, in the hall of Seniors on the Bow
Spray Lakes Sawmill Family Sport Community Centre
* Trail Use Survey – 3 summer months of 2017, through motion sensor camera
* Trail Erosion Monitoring initiated
* Trail Maintenance – work done, work required
* Beavers – Their benefits to our environment.
Dr. Ken Stevenson
* Update on Gravel Pits, Big Hill Springs area.
Gerry Bietz and Vivian Pharis
* Canada thistle-eating weevil test plot initiated
* Water quality testing – first summer and fall of results
Dr. Ymene Fouli
* Stewardship assessment
* Financial Statement and Grants Update
* Election of Board Members
We have been successful in obtaining grants from Land Stewardship Centre, AlbertaEcotrust and Bow River Basin Council to initiate our Watershed Study. It should be completed by the end of July 2018.
This fall we will start upgrading our one trail. If you are interested in helping to upgrade our trail please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org