How does our water measure up?

Water quality Report Card 2016

Water sampling sites

Water quality grading


The Smoky Applied Research and Demonstration Association (SARDA) began a water quality monitoring program in 2011, with the assistance of Aquality Environmental Consulting Ltd. Surface water samples were taken from three sites in SARDA’s research area: Peavine Creek (Municipal District [M.D.] of Smoky River), New Fish Creek (M.D. of Greenview) and the Little Smoky River (M.D. Greenview). Sample locations, chosen by SARDA, were based on their proximity to agricultural lands, uses as drinking water intakes, and their likelihood of exposure to terrestrial inputs. Sampling in 2016 continues the monitoring program run from 2011 to 2015. Sampling events occurred twice per year in the same manner as the previous years’ sampling program. Sampling occurred once in the late spring to early summer after the spraying of pre-emergent herbicides on croplands, and again in late summer to early fall following harvest. Samples were analyzed for pesticides, nutrients, metals, and bacteria. In 2016, sampling was carried out on May 31st for the spring/early summer sampling period and October 19th for the fall sampling period.
Samples were analyzed for 101 different pesticides; however, no pesticides were detected in 2016 (Figure 1). This is an improvement over the combined results from 2011 – 2015, where AMPA was detected twice (spring and fall 2014 at Peavine Creek), Clopyralid and Dicamba were detected once each (fall 2012 at Peavine Creek), MCPA was detected once (spring 2012 at Peavine Creek), Picloram was detected twice (spring and fall 2011 at Peavine Creek), and Glyphosate was detected nine times. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Round-up® and several other common pesticides used in Alberta1Glyphosate was detected at the Little Smoky River in spring 2011 at 0.003 μg/L, below the guideline of 65 μg/L2. In 2014, Glyphosate appeared to be widely used and was detected at all the sampling locations in spring and fall, but in 2015, was only detected in Peavine Creek in the spring and the Little Smoky River in the fall. The highest detected concentration of 0.00549 mg/L of Glyphosate was detected at Peavine Creek during the spring of 2015.
glyphosate concentrations
1 Scribner EA, Battaglin WA, Gilliom RJ, Meyer MT. 2007. Concentrations of Glyphosate, it’s Degradation Product, Aminomethylphosphonic Acid, and Glufosinate in Ground- and Surface – Water Rainfall, and Soil Samples Collected in the United States, 2011-06. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007, 111p. 2Government of Alberta. 2014. Environmental Quality Guidelines for Alberta Surface Waters. Edmonton, Alberta.
In 2014, the Alberta Government revised the Environment Quality Guidelines for Alberta Surface Waters. Under the new guidelines, the decision was made to remove the previous guideline for Total Phosphorus (TP; previously 0.05 mg/L) and Total Nitrogen (TN; previously 1.0 mg/L) (ESRD 2014). These guidelines have been replaced with site specific guidelines for these nutrients. The Alberta Government is conducting supporting work to establish these guidelines for major rivers throughout the province. Typically, these guidelines would be derived from historical data, which is usually only avaiable for large rivers. SARDA may consider developing specific nutrient guidelines for each of the tributaries in the watershed. However, new guidelines could be adapted from those that are developed for the Peace River. For the purpose of this report, we have presented the previous guidelines for comparison purposes.
Total Phospohorus
Total phosphorus (TP) exceeded the previous guideline3 (0.05 mg/L) at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River in the spring of 2016, but was below detectable concentrations at Peavine Creek (Figure 2). In the fall, TP concentration exceeded the guideline at Peavine Creek, but was below detectable concentrations at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River. Phosphorus concentrations largely comprised particulate/organic sources, with limited or absent contributions of dissolved phosphorus. There has been no clear inter-annual trend in TP concentrations over the six-year study. TP concentrations at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River have generally been lower in the fall than in the spring, except for samples collected in 2015.
TP concentrations
TN Concentrations4 Alberta Environment. 1999. Surface Water Quality Guidelines for Use in Alberta. Environmental Assurance Division. Science and Standards Branch. Edmonton, Alberta. Retrieved from: protenf/ publications/SurfWtrQual-Nov99.pdf.
Total Nitrogen
Total nitrogen (TN) exceeded the previous guideline4 of 1.0 mg/L at Peavine and Fish creeks in the spring of 2016 and Peavine Creek in the fall (Figure 3). Nitrogen concentrations largely comprised
particulate/organic sources at most of the sites. Dissolved forms of nitrogen only contributed significantly to concentrations at Peavine Creek in the spring (nitrate) and the Little Smoky River in the
fall (ammonia). Peavine Creek has generally stood out as the site with the highest TN concentrations overall. There is no clear seasonal pattern at Peavine Creek, but TN concentrations at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River have generally been lower during the fall than during the spring, with the exception of 2015. In 2016, the TN concentration at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River resumed the trend of being higher in the spring than the fall, and the spring 2016 TN concentration at Peavine Creek was higher than in the previous five years.
coliform concentration
Total coliform concentrations exceeded guidelines5 (1000 CFU/100 mL) at Peavine and Fish creeks in the spring (Figure 4). E. coli concentrations fell below guidelines6 (100 CFU/100 mL) at all sites in both the spring and the fall (Figure 5). There was no clear inter-annual pattern in E. coli concentrations.
5,6 CCME (Canadian Council for the Ministers of the Environment). 2014. Water Quality Guidelines for the
Protection of Freshwater Aquatic Life, Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. Accessed online at:
Samples were analyzed for 33 different metals. Of these, six have exceeded current guidelines7 for at least one sample collected during the six-year study (though not all metals have guidelines available) (Table 2). Exceedances were most common for iron (29 of 36 samples), aluminum (30 of 36 samples), and zinc (8 of 36 samples). For 2016, no exceedances were noted at Peavine Creek in the spring, and two were noted in the fall (aluminum and iron). Fish Creek exceeded four metal guidelines in the spring (aluminum, cadmium, copper, and iron) and two in the fall (aluminum and iron). Little Smoky exceeded two metal guidelines in both the spring and fall (aluminum and iron). A greater number of exceedances was observed in the spring 2016 than in the fall, and concentrations were generally higher in the spring. 
7 Government of Alberta. 2014. Environmental Quality Guidelines for Alberta Surface Waters. Edmonton, Alberta.
Table 2
8 Government of Alberta. 2014. Environmental Quality Guidelines for Alberta Surface Waters. Edmonton, Alberta.
Where guideline is dependent on other parameters which have not been measured, the most conservative value is
used in calculating the guideline
River Water Quality Index Site Ranking
Aquality developed a modified version of AEP’s River Water Quality Index in 2013. The index was modified to include all parameters sampled by SARDA; however, the methodology and statistical formula used to analyze the data remained the same. The index considers the number of times a parameter exceeded guidelines and the magnitude of those exceedances, broken down across four categories of parameters: Nutrients and Related Variables, Bacteria, Metals, and Pesticides. The results from the sub-indices are averaged to provide an overall water quality index score for each site, with 100 being the best water quality and 0 being the poorest (Table 3). From these percentages, we can obtain a water quality rating for each site from excellent to poor.
For 2016, the poorest water quality rating was observed at Fish Creek in the spring (64%), while the best water quality rating was observed at Fish Creek in the fall (89%) (Table 4). Peavine had similar ratings in both seasons (78% and 79%), as did the Little Smoky River (83% and 84%). The results from 2011 to 2016 show that overall water quality is usually poorer in the spring. Peavine has the lowest average water quality rating of 75% (Fair), while Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River have average ratings of 86% and 89% (Good), respectively.
Table 3
Table 4
Metals and nutrients have been the primary impediments to water quality, based on the values from the individual sub-indices for all sites (Table 5). Peavine Creek has generally shown the greatest number of impediments to water quality, with both nutrients and metals usually falling within the Marginal category. At both Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River, metals generally fell within the Fair category; nutrients, while generally lower than the other parameter groups, still fell within the Good category, indicating that metals are the primarily responsible for impeded water quality at these sites. Index values at Peavine Creek and the Little Smoky River fell within the expected ranges based on historical values, while Fish Creek showed scores below those expected from previous years.
Table 5
 Summary and Conclusions
Across most parameters and years, the site at Peavine Creek appears to have the most impaired water quality. Pesticides and nutrients have been highest at that site during most sampling events, as have total coliforms. However, in 2015, Fish Creek showed nutrient and total coliform concentrations at equal or higher concentrations than Peavine Creek.
In 2016, the number of metal exceedances was highest at Fish Creek; cadmium and copper had the highest concentrations observed during the six-year project. The spring total phosphorous concentration was also highest at Fish Creek. The pattern of water quality at Fish Creek from fall 2015 through spring 2016 suggests that there may have been a change in conditions upstream from that site, based on more impeded water quality in the fall compared to the spring (a reversal of the historical seasonal pattern), and continued reduction of quality below historical seasonal index values in the following spring.
In 2016, nutrients and metals were the greatest impediments to water quality across all sites, with high frequencies of exceedances noted for both groups of parameters. Concentrations of total nitrogen were within the ranges of values expected for moderate agricultural intensity at the Peavine Creek site, but there is low intensity agricultural activity at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River9. Although there is a decrease in total nitrogen concentration observed at the Fish Creek site compared to 2015, it was still  
higher than the years prior to 2015. Concentrations of total phosphorus were within the ranges of 
values expected for low intensity agricultural activity at all sites9; however, total phosphorus exceeded 
the guideline at Fish Creek and the Little Smoky River in the spring, and at Peavine Creek in the fall.
Metals concentrations have been highly variable both within and between years, but the number of exceedances are similar for each location (23 at Peavine Creek, 24 at Fish Creek, and 27 at the Little Smoky River). All the metals with exceedances have natural sources in soils and minerals, and exceedances are likely associated with sediment-laden runoff. Metals exceedances are also dominated by aluminum and iron, Bacteria do not appear to be a significant problem within the systems. No exceedances for E. coli have been recorded over the course of the monitoring program. Concentrations of E.coli were within the range of values expected for low agricultural intensity watershed9. While eight exceedances have occurred for total coliforms, there are a wide variety of natural environmental sources of total coliforms such as decaying vegetation.
Overall, the results suggest marginal to good water quality due to agricultural activity and erosion, with water quality in 2016 lying at or below values recorded over the previous 5 years. The lack of pesticide detections and the overall low concentrations of E. coli indicate that agricultural activity has limited impacts at most sites and times. The elevated nutrient concentrations at Peavine Creek and Fish Creek suggest greater impacts of agriculture, but these impacts still appear to be within the range of low- to moderately-intensive agricultural watersheds.
Sampling is scheduled to continue in 2017, with an annual summary report to be completed following sampling.
9 Lorenz, K.N., Depoe, S.L., and Phelan, C.A. 2008. Assessment of Environmental Sustainability in Alberta's Agricultural Watersheds Project. Volume 3: AESA Water Quality Monitoring Project. Alberta Agriculture and Rural Alberta, Canada. 487 pp.

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