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The North Saskatchewan River is excellent for recreational activities and aquatic life. It's typically below the applicable water quality guidelines for bacteria such as E. coli, algal toxins, and clarity. The exception is during periods of high runoff such as during spring runoff and summer storm events where contributions from natural processes and human land use can impair water quality.
Most of the water in the North Saskatchewan River comes from snow pack in the headwaters, and because this landscape remains largely forested and pristine, water quality remains high on its way to Edmonton.
Many people mistake its silty appearance for being dirty. Our river is naturally sediment rich and during spring runoff and summer storms, increased runoff causes resuspension and erosion of the river bed which gives the river its muddy appearance. This movement of sediment is important in creating habitat for fish species and other aquatic life who are adapted to these processes. As long as levels remain within the natural variability of the river system the river maintains its natural function. As the water levels recede, often later in the summer, the water usually becomes clear and shallow and is very attractive for paddling and other forms of recreation.
That isn't to say our large urban footprint doesn't affect water quality in the North Saskatchewan River. However, even though Edmonton has grown to a large metropolitan region, water quality downstream of Edmonton has improved significantly in the past 60 years through better treatment of sewage at the Goldbar Wastewater treatment plant and improved regulation and management of other discharges to the river.
Source water protection plan
River water quality index map
During the spring and following large rain events in the headwater, the North Saskatchewan River can be fast moving and encroach on shoreline vegetation making recreational use inadvisable. However, throughout most of the summer and fall, water levels are quite safe for paddling and other forms of on-water recreation, providing you take necessary safety precautions. You can check out the real-time flows in the NSR at rivers.alberta.ca.
Did you know that there are police and fire rescue permanently stationed on the river in Edmonton? As with any water recreation, it is recommended to abide by water safety protocols, wear a life jacket, check weather and water conditions prior to departure, and always inform someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
Burbot, Goldeye, Lake Sturgeon, Mountain Whitefish, Northern Pike, Walleye are just some of the fish species that can be found in our river. Water quality downstream of Edmonton has improved significantly in the past 60 years through better treatment of sewage and reduction of other discharges into the river having a positive impact on fish stocks and health. Learn more about fishing the North Sasakatchewan River.
Some good fishing spots include at the mouths of our urban tributaries and below storm outfalls as insects and other fish food can often wash into the river at these points. In some of the deeper holes in the North Saskatchewan River, a legacy fish, the Lake Sturgeon can be found.
Health Canada sets fish consumption guidelines based on naturally occurring mercury limits so many people follow standard catch and release protocols.
There's only one real way to experience our city and that's from the water. River access has increased significantly in the past decade, due in part to the efforts of the River Valley Alliance.
The River Valley Alliance (RVA) is a not-for-profit organization with the vision of preserving, protecting and enhancing the capital region North Saskatchewan river valley park system. In November 2012, the RVA began a $90 million capital program that involved 18 initiatives including adding 74 km of new recreation trail, six docks or boat launches, a new pedestrian footbridge at Terwillegar Park and a new mechanized access funicular downtown Edmonton.
There are 4 boat launches (Devon, Louise McKinney, Capilano Park and Red Coat Landing) in addition to many hand launch locations throughout the City. Visit the RVA website for an overview of the capital projects.
Within Edmonton's city limits, the banks of the North Saskatchewan River include many parks, natural areas, trails, and amenities including boating facilities, launches, hand launches and docks. These features are owned by the City and designed for use by the public, partner groups and Emergency Response.
The City of Edmonton is developing a 10-year plan referred to as the River Access Strategy. This Strategy will inform future programming, operations and infrastructure improvements related to access and activities associated with the river.
Water quality in the North Saskatchewan River at Edmonton is rated as good to excellent and has low nutrients, pathogens (i.e. bacteria) and other contaminants. Being a moving water source, the river doesn't have some of the same issues you might see at a lake or standing water source.
Most of the river bottom is rock, gravel, sand or silt and the sediment has little to no odour. In contrast, many recreational lakes in Alberta typically have muddy bottoms which often have an odour due to decomposition of plants and other organic materials. As well, lake algal blooms can contribute to odour and aesthetic issues and lakes can house snail species which are the intermediate host for the dreaded swimmer's itch.
Also, dissolved oxygen concentrations remain high in the NSR throughout the entire year providing habitat for a wide variety of fish species. In contrast, several recreational lakes in Alberta can experience low dissolved oxygen concentrations caused by large amounts of algae or aquatic plants which can cause large mortalities of fish during 'winter kill' or 'summer kill' events.
So the next time you are considering hitting the beach, why not #baskonthesask at one of the great river side parks throughout the Capital Region. Voyageur Park (Devon), Emily Murphy Park (Edmonton) and West River's Edge (Fort Saskatchewan) have fantastic riverside day use access and facilities where you can get your feet wet.