A new project led by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in partnership with the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) has mapped hydrologically significant areas in the Red Deer River watershed. The project has also created a user-friendly, online mapping tool to explore watershed features.

“The Nature Conservancy of Canada is excited to provide public access to a tool that facilitates the visual prioritization of hydrologically significant areas,” said Suzanne Marechal, NCC’s acting manager of conservation planning and spatial analysis. “Our hope is that the HSA tool will, effectively and adaptively, contribute to actions that address water quantity and quality challenges while simultaneously supporting human well-being and the benefits of biodiversity.”

A watershed is an area of land that channels rainfall and snowmelt into one place, such as a river or an ocean. The Red Deer River watershed is vast and is home to more than 300,000 people, including the cities of Red Deer and Brooks.

Different landscapes across the Red Deer River watershed benefit the health of the land in different ways. When looking at the watershed from a large scale, it is important to identify the areas that provide natural benefits, such as purifying and regulating water flow.

The areas that provide these benefits are called hydrologically significant areas, or HSAs. They can inform land-use decision-making at a variety of scales, whether it is a municipal planner drafting a municipal plan or a land trust prioritizing potential projects.

Launched in 2019, this mapping project used open-source spatial data, which is accessible to everyone, to identify areas in the Red Deer River watershed that, if conserved, would benefit water quality, flood mitigation, and drought resiliency. The project engaged stakeholders from various sectors, developed a new report called Prioritizing Hydrologically Significant Natural Assets, and developed an online map portal.

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This mapping portal will be an important tool for land-use decisions, as approximately 30 per cent of the area mapped in the Red Deer River watershed is of moderate to high hydrological significance. These areas stretch across both pristine wilderness and working landscapes. Areas within Banff National Park were not assessed due to lack of available data.

The HSA conservation planning tool is a unique way to consider the importance of the impact of water at a watershed or local scale. It uses a straightforward step-by-step approach that is transparent and repeatable, allowing for future updates or expansion. Partners from across sectors are encouraged to use the maps generated through this project as a decision-support tool to inform conservation, municipal development, provincial land-use planning and stewardship activities.

For Josée Méthot, executive director of the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance, the project was an opportunity to develop a tool to help partners from across sectors. “This project has helped spur conversations about how to balance conservation and development to protect watershed health. We hope that people will use the online portal to think about the landscape and potential activities in the Red Deer River watershed through a water lens.”

This Red Deer River watershed HSA project was supported by key funders MEGlobal, the Land Stewardship Centre and Clark Builders. Preceding HSA work in the Bow River watershed was funded by the Land Stewardship Centre, Alberta NAWMP Partnership, Southern Alberta Land Trust Society, the Bow River Basin Council and Western Sky Land Trust.

The new interactive online portal is available here.

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Header Image Credit: NCC.

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