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​We invited award-winning Edmonton journalist, Curtis Gillespie, to interview leaders and members of Team EPCOR to provide a unique perspective on our role and commitment to ESG. For this article, Curtis spoke with two of EPCOR's scientists about their work to protect the North Saskatchewan River.

Managing the flow​

The North Saskatchewan River (NSR) is the life source for much of central Alberta's population. The NSR's flow is vast, its movement thrilling, its sinuous valley acting as the world's largest urban park. The water of the NSR (after EPCOR treatment) was also recently named the People's Choice Winner of the American Water Works Association Tap Water Taste Test. The NSR is, in short, a natural gift to be cherished and protected.

And it is EPCOR's job to collaboratively manage and protect this resource for the more than 1 million people in 70 communities who rely on its water. One of the issues both immediate and long-term is to understand, plan for and mitigate how climate change might affect and put at risk our water supply. Dr. Steve Craik and Dr. Stephanie Neufeld of EPCOR are part of a broader network of scientists dedicated to the protection of the NSR watershed and ultimately our water supply. Craik is Director of Quality Assurance and Environment.

“We are so lucky," says Craik. “The NSR is a great river." But, he adds, it naturally contains silt, clay, sand, sediment and organic matter, not to mention whatever the watershed collects due to human activities such as farming, industry and urban development. That's one of the realities of a watershed and treating its water for human use. Climate change is another reality. “What climate change does," says Craik, “is increase the uncertainty of an already variable system." Drought, floods, color, turbidity, all affect how difficult it is to treat the water.

The dominant narrative around climate change is a hotter and drier climate, but current modelling suggests otherwise for the NSR watershed. The biggest challenge we can expect, says Craik, is more water at different times, as well as increased weather volatility and variability. Turbulent weather means likely changes in natural turbidity as well as in public expectation of raw water conditions, all of which will alter EPCOR’s treatment methods in order to maintain its water quality standards.

Neufeld is Watershed Manager for EPCOR and works on the Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and the Source Water Protection Plan. The WaterSHED Monitoring Program, which she also works on, is a basin-wide water quality monitoring collaboration with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, and the City of Edmonton. Locally, EPCOR has also created an initiative called the Integrated Watershed Management Strategy that looks to manage total loads of nutrients, sediments, metals, and bacteria from stormwater, wastewater and treatment processes.

When we talk about watersheds," says Neufeld, “it's the science of how and when water moves and interacts across our landscape, and what geo-biochemical processes occur as that water's moving. A watershed is about movement over time."

We need both basin-wide and urban watershed models, says Neufeld, to look at how climate change will affect precipitation patterns, which is what drives water quality and quantity. What will an earlier spring mean? Or more frozen ground? What if more of our precipitation falls as rain instead of snow? Rainfall in a forest is different than rainfall on a parking lot. When water moves faster across harder and dirtier landscapes, its quality is affected. Precipitation mostly ends up in the river, but so too does a lot of what the water picks up along the way. Changes in rainfall and snowmelt patterns would affect the movement of substances to downstream water bodies, making EPCOR's job of treating water more difficult. Edmonton's 700 square kilometre footprint is small compared to the upstream watershed of 28,000 square kilometres and the total watershed of 57,000 square kilometres. Edmonton's effect on the quantity of water in the NSR, therefore, is likely to be minimal, but the city's effect on the water's quality could be significant.

“In our Climate Change Adaptation Plan, we do identify flood as being one of the top risks of future climate change, mostly due to the increased uncertainty," says Craik. “The other one that follows is the impact on water quality and its treatability." To address this, EPCOR is at work refining barrier techniques to protect water treatment plants, as well increasingly sophisticated processes to clean and purify the water.

Climate change is also tied to population growth and development. The more people there are, the more pressure the climate is under. We are all connected to and by the river, says Craik. Which is why climate change is a shared issue none of us can ignore. Neufeld agrees. “We're a little more fragile than we think," she says. “Ecosystem collapse is a slippery slope.  We need to do everything we can."

Neufeld and Craik, and EPCOR and those it collaborates with, know that to protect our water supply, we need to protect the environment. As the great Canadian writer Margaret Laurence once said, the river flows both ways.​

​Source Water Protection Plan

EPCOR's triennial Source Water Protection Plan is part of a multi-barrier approach to protect both the quality and quantity of water from the North Saskatchewan River. The 2020 edition includes assessments and management recommendations for more than 30 risks, including commentary on climate-driven trends and their impact on water volume and water quality in the North Saskatchewan River.

Protecting the environment is one way we're building stronger communities

We’re committed to helping our communities by protecting the environment and promoting social responsibility. We do that by conducting our business responsibly, with openness and transparency. We're pleased to share our ESG report to showcase our performance in areas that are important to us—our customers, our partners, and the communities we serve.

See our ESG report