• The Saskatoon weir (a small overflow dam) is a de rigueur photo stop on the South Saskatchewan River. The river is fed by the Bow and Oldman Rivers in southern Alberta and gets 95 percent of its flow from mountain snow and rain. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • The South Saskatchewan River is an aquatic playground for the province’s people. The Gardiner Dam traps the river for electrical power and the water pools to form Lake Diefenbaker, a destination for swimmers, boaters and cottagers. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • The South Saskatchewan River is a glacial spillway scattered with 45 dams. The concrete towers that hold turbines for the Gardiner Dam are seen here with Lake Diefenbaker in the background. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • Owned and operated by Barry Cafferata and his family for the last 26 years, Lakeside Marina Services rents yachts and other luxury boats to sail out onto the South Saskatchewan River. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • Lake Diefenbaker, a reservoir fed by the South Saskatchewan, is speckled with marinas along its 800-kilometre shoreline. Agriculture and cities presently withdraw nearly 50 percent of the river’s flow. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • A 2009 World Wildlife Fund Canada report called the river Canada’s most threatened. Yet record rains in 2010 have caused floods and widespread crop damage. Here, the Gardiner Dam electrical sub station sits near the shore of the South Saskatchewan. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • The South Saskatchewan provides water for irrigation in Alberta and Saskatchewan. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • The Great Sand Hills — 1,900 square kilometres of desert in southwestern Saskatchewan — are moving closer toward the river’s shore.  The dunes, near Sceptre, Sask., are said to move four metres east each year. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • The flow of the South Saskatchewan has dropped 12 percent in the last century, raising concerns that not enough is being done to protect the water source. One solution is a central management authority. Currently the river is controlled by dozens of government agencies. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

  • Saskatoon, also known as the City of Bridges, is home to Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin and residents value the river as a central part of their daily lives. (Photo: Nayan Sthankiya)

With photography by

In silence, we bump along the uneven pavement of a little-used secondary highway, watching the west turn almost to desert. It seems utterly the wrong landscape for a holiday afloat. In the rear-view mirror, the boat on its trailer tugs to and fro like a worried pony being led into danger. My sailing pal Mark and I silently scan the treeless, cactus-sage hills ahead, home to bull snake and burrowing owl. This is the bleach-bone heart of the Palliser Triangle, named for the British government scout who, in 1860, declared the area too dry for settlement. Lewis, my 19-year-old son, is jammed in with the back-seat gear and has come along to ferry the vehicle back to our destination point. He now breaks the spell with a declaration of his own, both on the forbidding landscape and on our middle-aged quest upon it.

“No country for old men,” he says.

South Saskatchewan River (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

And so it would be, were it not for the river. We pass down out of the high-and-dry ranch country into fields where irrigation booms send their beneficial spray ssst-ssst-ssst over verdant crops, to the rim of the great valley. And there is the muddy, green, cool, reliable South Saskatchewan River.

The name, pretty to my ear, is from the Cree for “swift water,” and it is fittingly lent to a whole province where all of us — plants, animals, people — owe our livelihood to the precious flow its two arms carry out to us from the mountains. The river sustains our lawns and our livestock, percolates in our coffee makers, spins electricity out of our turbines, ices our hockey rinks. It flows in the very cells of our children.

The South Saskatchewan has been compared to the Colorado, another Rocky Mountains-born river bringing wealth to dry country. I pray it will not have met that tappedout river’s sad fate by the time my son is an old man. Like the Colorado, the South Saskatchewan is much diminished by humans. Despite our low regional population in the west, we manage to consume about one-third of its flow, which has dropped naturally by 12 percent in the last century. With human-driven climate change expected to hit hard in Palliser’s drought-prone west, we here are taking stock of the one natural resource on which our whole economic future rests.

The true danger is hard to know. A 2009 report by World Wildlife Fund Canada called it the country’s most-threatened river. Yet record rains this year have caused floods and widespread crop damage. Amid such climatic uncertainty, perhaps the real threats to the South Saskatchewan are not drought or flood, but ignorance and confusion. As with every Canadian river and lake, hundreds of government, academic and stewardship agencies at federal, provincial and municipal levels attempt to study and manage the river, directly or indirectly. There is no means to coordinate them. Water is so abundant across most of Canada that we have gotten away with such Byzantine management. When the reckoning comes, it will surely come first to our dryland river. After 150 years of settlement in the mercurial west, we cannot answer the one question most basic to our livelihood: will there always be enough water?

A good place to begin a search for answers is on the river itself. Mark and I launch our flat-bottom sailboat at Saskatchewan Landing, a historic ford that is now a provincial park. The water under our hull, which has travelled through rugged clay canyons from the river’s birthplace in Alberta, at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman rivers, has already survived its greatest ordeal. Alberta irrigation is the single largest consumer of South Saskatchewan River water. Sixty-five percent of Canada’s irrigated farm acreage is in southern Alberta, and by interprovincial agreement, the province is allowed to consume up to half of the river flow. Circular spray booms have turned the Lethbridge-Medicine Hat corridor into high-value green polka dots of corn, potatoes and beets; the highway is strung with french-fry factories and vast intensive livestock operations.

We turn downstream instead, passing under a highvoltage line into an invented waterworld of another kind. In Saskatchewan, we may envy Alberta’s canals, but by far the most visible exploitation of the river is our own. In 1967, the province finished two dams to trap the river for electrical power and to slake the municipal thirst of Regina and points south. The river is plumbed to roughly half the kitchen taps in the province today. The resulting Lake Diefenbaker sprawls more than 200 kilometres behind the Gardiner and Qu’Appelle dams, an aquatic playground for parched southerners. Swimming, golf and affordable cottaging are perks afforded by the impounded water.

Photographs often fail to capture the vast scale of this time-rounded glacial spillway, and there is much beauty alongshore as we travel. Hawks ride thermals over the baking prickly pear cactus on the south-facing banks. The cooler shore opposite harbours hawthorn and buffalo berry, ash and cottonwood. Mark’s keen eye spots whitetail deer and pronghorn antelope foraging on the bluffs. At night, we camp ashore like cowboys and make fires from driftwood. The coyotes sing, the stars blaze, and it is possible to think the west is still wild.

Yet the valley is unmistakably engineered, oddly lifting our boat up as we go east until we are level with the prairie. The massive reservoir corrals a whole summer’s runoff, to be meted out in doses by the Gardiner Dam the rest of the year. Endangered piping plovers are drawn to nest on the artificially wide sandy beaches but must cope with “managed” water that typically rises six metres. We pass a well-known fish farm using the cold mountain runoff to raise the steelhead salmon often sold as “Lake Diefenbaker trout” on better restaurant menus in Saskatoon and Regina.

The river is odd by nature too. It gains hardly any new water once it leaves Alberta, skirting semi-deserts and many areas of internal drainage that donate hardly a drop to the passing river. Massive side canyons have only tiny rivulets at their bottoms — or none at all — and the river grows a mere two percent in volume on its journey through Saskatchewan. Psychologically, it is fitting that this province chose to build great dams, to literally hold on to our precious share of water in a region defined by a lack of it.

Our last day afloat, the artificial lake plays tricks with our sense of place. Around Riverhurst, the sandy, flat banks resemble those of the Nile seen from a felucca, minus the pyramids. And then we seem to find ourselves in a regatta off the California coast. In the widest part of the reservoir, deep-keel yachts sail out of the farming-turned-marina town of Elbow. A flooded coulee now serves as a snug harbour, where the collection of pricey boats and their owners could be on Catalina Island.

Nothing so transforms a place like water.

Saskatoon is the de facto capital of the Saskatchewan River Basin. Other cities are graced by the river, but nowhere else are urbanites so inordinately proud of it. We cross and recross the river, often many times a day in the “City of Bridges,” and delight in the elegant view. It is an imposing, dramatic presence in an otherwise demure landscape. Yet the river kindly lowers its normally fortress-high banks as it passes through the city, yielding an intimacy with the water. We ride our bicycles along its willow banks and mark the arrival of spring by the return of the pelicans that fish every day in the eddies below the weir. If you ask a Saskatonian what she loves about her city, she will likely say, “The people … and the river.”

The city is home to the closest thing that exists to a river head office. Headquartered in a squat building near the Traffic Bridge is Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin, where I find managing partner Susan Lamb sharing the lobby with two dozen boisterous schoolkids on a field trip. The kids are there for the same reason I am, perhaps, to see whether someone is minding the store.

“Nobody told the river there are borders,” says Lamb from her glass-walled riverbank office. “We must start thinking of this river as a whole system, not in terms of political boundaries, if we are going to manage it sustainably.” The Partners organization tries to do just that, bringing together government water agencies from the three prairie provinces, special-interest groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada and individual citizens from across the west.

Thinking about the river as a whole system is one thing; actually managing it that way is still a far-off dream. A jumble of government agencies, such as the Prairie Provinces Water Board, wield partial control over the river. Federal, provincial and municipal governments have spun a tangled web of legislation and programs to manage the river for a thousand uses: safe drinking, powerboat racing, industrial development, bird habitat, to name a few. Add in hundreds of NGOs or quasi-government advisory groups — like the basin Partners — and you have more cacophony than chorus. To be fair, such jurisdictional fragmentation is the main obstacle to sustainable ecosystem management gen - erally, not just with the South Saskatchewan River. Lake Winnipeg infamously fell between the government administrative cracks for 30 years until a band of citizens joined forces to rescue it (see “Forgotten lake,” Nov/Dec 2006).

Maybe we can someday reach a promised land called integrated water-resources management in the South Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, says Lamb, we still have glaring gaps in our most basic knowledge.

“We know virtually nothing about actual use or consumption of water,” she says. “No one does.” Her assertion catches me off guard. Having waded through hundreds of pages of river studies and reports over the years, I’ve seen water-consumption figures cited exhaustively, used in graphs, equations and, that staple of water literature, pie charts. Consumption figures are even noted in the Partners’ own 2009 state-of-the-basin study, “From the Mountains to the Sea.” Lamb is a very bright person, but in this instance, she must somehow be mistaken. Surely our actual water use is too widely discussed, too vital a statistic here in Palliser country, to be an unknown.

“Certainly actual use is rarely measured,” confirms Robert Halliday, author of the Partners’ report, when I go to see him for clarification. Halliday, former director of Environment Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre, says that we measure river flows at about 2,500 monitoring stations across the country. The Saskatoon station is not far from Halliday’s house, just upstream from the weir in a little brick building. But beyond this thin data-gathering network, everything is guesswork.

There are nearly 12,000 licensed users of river water and 80 percent of the water allocated under these licences is withdrawn in Alberta’s sprawling irrigation districts. Users typically meter their intake pipes, but the standards for reporting are lax, and withdrawal numbers alone cannot tell us actual water use. Some water is taken up by growing plants, some evaporates or is lost from leaking canals, and much simply flows back to the river. Since none of this is measured, actual consumption is just an estimate based on assumptions.

Our estimates are accurate only on a large scale. Humans currently withdraw about 50 percent of the total South Saskatchewan flow. Actual consumption — withdrawals minus return flows — is about 33 percent.

“Is taking half the water really a good thing?” wonders Halliday. The answer, he says, is too important to leave to governments. Like many, he believes a whole-basin management authority is the only path to saving the river for the future. Such authorities or commissions operate worldwide. Halliday hazards a guess that the Saskatchewan River may be the largest inter-jurisdictional basin in the world without one.

Across the water from downtown, the east bank of the river is graced by the elegant greystone architecture of the University of Saskatchewan. A major centre of water research in Canada, the school has, in recent years, aggressively recruited rock-star-status academics from all over the world. Some 65 faculty positions are linked with water science and, arguably, the best collection of water-research facilities in the land. In May, the university bought full-page newspaper ads to trumpet the arrival of sustainable-water luminary Howard Wheater, late of Imperial College London, and $30 million in funding for a new water-security institute.

While it is comforting to have the best and brightest in our midst, even scientists recognize that science alone cannot protect natural systems. Monique Dubé, a Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Health Diagnosis, says we already have sufficient research to sustainably manage rivers. The real task is in integrating thousands of existing studies, shaping them into a clear action plan. “Our data are piecemeal, just like our fragmented jurisdictions,” she says. “How do we collect, collate and assess watershed data on meaningful scales?” Dubé is developing a solution called THREATS (The Healthy River Ecosystem Assessment System), a software tool that, when finished, anyone will be able to use to quickly assess environmental impacts. It gathers and presents diverse watershed data in clear ways, on user-defined geographic scales. What it may lack in cutting-edge accuracy, it will make up for in accessibility and speed, allowing non-specialist users such as rural municipalities and local developers to see how their plans will affect the river.

When it comes to water, getting the big picture is never easy. The truth can simply vanish in the details. Since the future of the river is, in the broadest sense, a supply-demand equation, I set off to the university’s department of economics to find Joel Bruneau, co-editor of a comprehensive technical report called “Climate Change and Water Resources in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.” The ponytailed professor does his part to avert a hotter, drier future climate by getting around Saskatoon by bicycle year-round. But his report suggests the challenges are here and now.

“The whole story is irrigation,” says Bruneau before I am quite seated in his office. His studies show there is sufficient river water to cope with regional population growth and worst-scenario climate change, but not if we keep irrigating at the present rate.

In fact, irrigation is still expanding. Even though Alberta stopped issuing new water licences in the South Saskatchewan River Basin in 2006, room to grow comes from “efficiencies” — converting leaky, evaporation-prone canals to low-loss pipeworks. Trading in water allocations, which further maximizes Alberta consumption, is on the rise. The net result of such “savings” is less water in the river for downstream users.

“They are already overallocated on the Oldman and Bow rivers and borrowing from the Red Deer to pay the ‘bill’ to Saskatchewan,” says Bruneau, who can foresee a day when Alberta will want to buy some of Saskatchewan’s share. For years a poor cousin to its western neighbour, Saskatchewan has seen its economic fortunes rise meteorically, and some farmers have called on government to directly match Alberta’s irrigation investment.

Bruneau doubts new irrigation projects would make economic sense now, if they ever did, but he dismisses the idea on more fundamental grounds. “We are taking a third of the river for irrigation already,” he says. “There’s no way we can double that. The water would become warm, covered with algae. The fish would die.”

It is Queen Victoria’s birthday. While summer-starved Canadians are making potato salad and twisting beer caps, I am standing at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, preparing to climb back into winter. Hydrologist John Pomeroy, his assistant May Guan and I zip gaiters over our boot tops, strap snowshoes onto our rucksacks and begin to climb the Marmot Creek Basin in the Kananaskis foothills west of Calgary. Hydrology is the science of how water moves over the land, and this place, Pomeroy assures me, “is where the action is.”

Many people mistakenly believe that the South Saskatchewan waters come only from melting glaciers. Both arms of the river, indeed, are born as streams from the ice cap, which supplies five to seven percent of the total flow. But they get the bulk of their precious water from snowfall collected in a thousand little foothills valleys like this along the eastern Rocky Mountains. Such valleys serve as stone cisterns, where winter’s snows are caught and stored up until spring melt.

Despite its vital importance to the three million people living on the parched western plain, the hydrology of these small valleys is virtually unstudied. Marmot Creek Basin (not to be confused with the similarly named Jasper National Park ski resort) is a rare exception. Weather and hydrological data have been collected here more or less continuously since 1962, though the unbroken record owes more to luck and the dedication of field scientists than to concerted will by the powers that be. Pomeroy is using the trickle of data off this mountain to drive new mathematical models that can predict the two most potent economic forces in Palliser’s west: river flow and drought.

We are bound for a station on Fisera Ridge at 2,318 metres, under the grey gaze of Mount Allan. The spot is named for Denny Fisera, a Canadian Forest Service employee who made the climb every few days for many years to take readings. Today, electronic data loggers wirelessly transmit data down the mountain, saving much of the legwork, but each site must still be visited about every 10 days.

Our ascent begins at the base of Nakiska Ski Resort, built for the 1988 Calgary Olympics. “This whole valley is a research facility, but we travel at the pleasure of the ski resort,” says Pomeroy when we find the main gate locked. We park and begin a tedious march up the resort service road to reach deep snow. We stop to don our snowshoes but at this time of year we sink through the melting drifts and it is awkward scrambling over the bare spots — like mountain climbing in swim fins.

After three sweaty hours, the view across the Kananaskis valley opens up and the stainless steel glint of scientific equipment can be seen in the stunted larch and fir ahead. Fisera Ridge is exposed to the full blast of high-mountain weather, and a battery of sensing equipment is in place to record the action. Snowfall, rain, wind, solar radiation, snow reflectivity and snow depth are all measured. Working together, Pomeroy and Guan sound the snowpack with a metal probe, cut core samples and weigh them. This thin veil of late-spring snow, less than a metre deep, is the delicate fabric from which a river is made.

Researchers have measured winds of 160 kilometres per hour here, but at the moment, it is perfectly still. Over lunch, with the distractingly beautiful front-range peaks as a backdrop, Pomeroy gives me his overview of water science and the future of the South Saskatchewan.

“We never rationalized this work on the basis of climate change,” says Pomeroy. While that looming threat could have grave consequences for the river in the not too distant future, we have hardly begun to understand the river of the present, let alone manage it. “You have to crawl before you can walk.”

That, says Pomeroy, requires far more monitoring than we currently deploy, especially in these mountain basins that are the lifeblood of the prairie river. “Environment Canada has one high-altitude weather station in the Rockies. Upstream of Banff, only one stream is gauged. We don’t have a single snout of a glacier monitored.” Lack of data, he says, impedes our ability to make even basic weather predictions, let alone make forecasts for avalanches, flood, irrigation water supply, forest fires or drought.

The drought of 1999-2004, the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, reduced the GDP by nearly $6 billion. Pomeroy, who once worked on the troubled Colorado River, says U.S. government agencies have learned that scrimping on data is false economy. American federal agencies are heavy funders of environmental monitoring. In Canada, such basics fall between administrative cracks all too often. “Why doesn’t Agriculture Canada have monitoring stations in the Rockies, since so many farmers’ livelihoods depend on what happens here?”

Pomeroy helps run two large research networks that use the Marmot data, the Drought Research Initiative and the IP3 Network. Although these brain collectives are building new hydrological models potentially worth billions to the economy, their funding is precarious and due to run out altogether by year’s end.

“In Canada, we like to have our ecosystems as intact as possible, which is a good thing,” says Pomeroy. “We also like to have our water essentially free of charge, or close to it. We cannot have both anymore.” As for the muddy Saskatchewan, Pomeroy echoes a theme: we three million prairie folk are luckier than the roughly 30 million in the Colorado River Basin and face nothing like the hardship of the 2.1 billion who depend on Himalayan rivers. Nonetheless, our own South Saskatchewan River is all spoken for and then some.

“A lot of civilizations have ended because they screwed up their water,” says Pomeroy as we ready ourselves to begin the descent, following this humble bellwether creek down toward the prairie, into its future. “We are living in an area where a complex civilization has never been hosted. Frankly, the jury is still out on whether it can be done.”

Trees: the real smoking gun

In a small mountain valley on the east flank of the Alberta Rockies, John Pomeroy leads the way down a path to The Tree. The sight, when we come to it, is macabre. An entire Engelman spruce is hung from a kind of gallows. The gruesome apparatus, which simply weighs the tree every 15 minutes, is used to track the amount of snow caught in tree branches. It is just one tool for unravelling the complex mystery of how the South Saskatchewan River gets its water.

Every mystery has a red herring. “The idea that shrinking glaciers are causing the river to dry up is a misconception,” says Pomeroy, who directs the University of Saskatchewan Centre for Hydrology, holds a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and leads the research here in the Marmot Creek Basin. Like the imperilled polar bear, retreating Rockies glaciers have become emblematic of human-induced climate change. Yet the great prairie river gets more than 90 percent of its flow not from the ancient ice but from snow and rain gathered in humble valleys like this.

Trees are the real smoking gun in this whodunit. The denser the upslope forest, the less water flows down to the river. Snow caught in tree branches is exposed to more sun and wind and tends to vaporize into the atmosphere via sublimation. Pomeroy’s hanging-tree experiment has shown that up to half the snow falling into heavily treed valleys can literally vanish into thin air. He got the sense that sublimation was a such big factor from prairie dryland farmers who long wondered at the disappearance of snow from their fields.

Naturally, trees consume water themselves and transpire it into the air. They heat up in the sun and melt snow wells around their trunks, and their roots create more pathways for water to travel underground. So if trees use so much water, how about cutting some? Indeed, Pomeroy notes that thinning and partial clearing can theoretically double available runoff, and these techniques are used in the Upper Colorado River Basin to increase river flow. Much of the eastern Canadian Rockies is under park protection, but reducing fire suppression — or the relentless march of the pine beetle — could have a similar effect.

Whether it is right to cut protected forests to compensate for mismanagement of downstream water is another matter. Meanwhile, the whole gamut of processes by which water moves from the air to the ground and back is being studied at Marmot Creek, and similar work is being done at nine other research sites from Idaho to the High Arctic. The physical data collected there are used to build better mathematical models of both hydrology and climate. Combined, they will be used to better predict tomorrow’s weather or how much river water will flow in the future.

Allan Casey