by Amy Spark

This post is part five of a six-part interview series conducted and written by Project Blue Thumb.

Project Blue Thumb is a multi-stakeholder social lab co-convened by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust Foundation that takes a whole system approach to protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. Building on the work of our current members, the PBT organizing team reached out to 13 multi-sector practitioners to hear their thoughts about the future of water in Alberta and potential directions. This post provides a snapshot from a few of our interviews relating to the role of municipalities in the water system. 

My morning walk to work along the Bow River epitomizes the dual nature of cities. On my right, geese honk, beavers chew, and ice jams ebb and flow. To my left, rush hour traffic speeds by and the Calgary LRT glides along the Blue Line. Cyclists and runners whiz by in both directions. I’m caught in the beautiful crossfire of nature-in-the-city and city-in-the-watershed.

Cities have a storied reputation. They have been described as thriving ecosystems1, sanctuaries2, and hubs of innovation3,4. However, they are also the cause of much of our environmental distress due to high populations and strained infrastructure. Large municipal centres rely on significant amounts of water from rivers, make significant land-use decisions, and impact downstream waters through nutrients, sediment, and even pharmaceuticals5,6. Yet cities also house universities, research labs, non-profits, and others thinking about these problems and striving for solutions. They are simultaneously sources of tradition and innovation; deterioration and opportunity.

In Alberta, municipalities large and small are striving to tackle our fundamental water challenges. 

For large municipalities, the finances, resources, staff, and ability to treat and manage water is available. Yet due to the sheer volume of wastewater produced, dilute pollutants are magnified and concentrated downstream. These cities can also be vulnerable to conditions upstream, as changes to the availability or quantity of source water occur. There is also the ever-present risk of flooding. Although cities can create the space, time, and resources for innovation, they have huge social and infrastructural systems to overhaul.

For small municipalities, the finances, resources, staff, and therefore ability to innovate water systems is typically not available. Smaller rural municipalities are often left in triage mode – a frame of mind which doesn’t allow much room for innovation. As Keith Ryder, Executive Director with the Red Deer River Municipal Users Group, explains: “Elected members struggle to get anything water related at the table of discussion. Water seems to be a topic that is pushed to the back burner in a lot of cases. Water (as important as it is)… well, there’s always other issues to deal with.

So what can we do to better support municipalities – big and small, urban and rural – as they grapple with these systems challenges? Increased support from the provincial government? Increased autonomy for municipalities? Increased citizen engagement? As I began to think through these questions, my thoughts revolved around the philosophy and psychology of urban spaces, rather than the technical infrastructure.

In western society, we have a strong nature-culture binary, meaning we tend to see spaces inhabited by humans as ‘non-natural’7. Our use of language reinforces this; take the phrase I used in my opening paragraph about experiencing ‘nature-in-the-city’ as an example. Nature is typically seen as something ‘out there’, distinct from human-created spaces. So ‘nature’ is often seen as something outside of municipalities. I believe this prevents us from appreciating that urban and rural municipalities are an important user in ‘nature’ (aka ‘the landscape’), and an intricate part of our twenty-first century watershed. We see water interactions on the landscape as distinct as to what happens with water in the city. 

I recently had a conversation with Sofie Forsström, Education Program Manager at the Oldman Watershed Council. Sofie recalled a pattern she has noticed with recreational users in the Oldman region when asked about water stewardship:

“People automatically think of water conservation in their home or yard. When standing in the backcountry talking to someone with a camper or off-highway-vehicle, we’d ask them what they could do to be more responsible about their water, and they would mention turning off the tap when they brush their teeth. There have been some very successful environmental campaigns to get people to think about responsible home and garden use, but it hasn’t translated to backcountry recreation yet.” 

Sofie Forsstrom post5

 Sofie Forsström

These environmental campaigns have been helpful in promoting water conservation in homes and yards. What they have excluded is our relationship to water use and conservation at a landscape level.

It prevents us from seeing that the activities that we engage in at the municipal level are forms of landscape engagement. For example, when I flush my toilet or do a load of laundry in my apartment in downtown Calgary, I am engaging with the watershed. And our actions on the landscape – recreation, industry, agriculture – influence the availability and quality of water for a variety of uses across a watershed. This post began as a reflection on municipalities, but I soon realized the challenges facing our municipal water systems are really a reflection of the landscape as a whole.

Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler, Professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, highlights how this municipality-landscape relationship can become dysfunctional. “It really comes down to this: is any municipality whose tax base is coming from completely land-based actions going to stop or challenge development? This is the flaw in the system.” Municipalities are struggling to manage the water needs of its citizens, which are strongly influenced by our land use practices. This conundrum is exacerbated by the number of citizens using the landscape for a variety of purposes. The catch-22 character of the problem can easily make one’s head spin.  

Mary Ellen Tyler post5

 Mary-Ellen Tyler

Despite the challenges, change is in the air for municipalities. There is a shift away from thinking of a municipality as a distinct feature on the landscape responsible only for providing clean drinking water to its citizens, to a better understanding of a municipality as part of a series of interconnected landscapes and communities. Projects such as the City of Calgary’s source water protection plan, recent changes to the Municipal Government Act, and water-treatment sharing between the towns of Hanna and Oyen, are a few examples of how municipal relationships to water are changing.

With this increased connectivity and dependence, the hope is that resilience increases, and the stress on municipal systems decreases. The shift from thinking merely about water treatment to water protection will give municipalities more responsibility but also more ability to control what’s going on downstream and upstream. As citizens, it’s important to support our municipal leaders when they make smart water decisions, and to speak up when we see poor ones. As a social innovation lab working in the water sphere, it’s our role to create the space in which these conversations and shifts in thinking can occur. We are beginning to understand that our actions on the landscape are really municipal actions, and the actions we undertake in municipal centres are really land-use decisions.

I’ll be thinking differently on my walk home today. This time, instead of river to my left, city to my right - I’ll be thinking ‘watershed to my right, watershed to my left’. City and landscape all around. Now home to engage with the river while doing my laundry.

Check out our final installment of Conservations around the Water Table posted on July 4, 2017. We will be building on all we have been exploring – cultural identity, new water paradigms, the value of water, reconciliation, and municipalities – to examine our guiding framework: Water for Life.

Curious about the project? See the Project Blue Thumb blog for information on our interview series, or join in the conversation on Twitter: @BlueThumbLab #ABwater.


1Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. 2012. Cities as Ecosystems? [Online]. [Accessed 8 May 2017]. Available from:

2Montpetit, J. 2017. Sanctuary city movement grows in Canada, but could bring tension with police, immigration officials. [Online] [Accessed 8 May 2017]. Available from: 

3International Energy Agency. 2017. Cities lead the way on clean and decentralized energy solutions. [Online] [Accessed 8 May 2017]. Available from:

4C40 Cities. 2012. Why Cities? Ending Climate Change Begins in the City. [Online]. [Accessed 8 May 2017]. Available from: 

5Chen, M., Ohman, K., Metcalfe, C., Ikonomou, M.G., Amatya, P.L., and J. Wilson. 2006. Pharmaceuticals and Endocrine Disruptors in Wastewater Treatment Effluents and in the Water Supply System of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Water Quality Research Journal of Canada. 41(4), 351-364.

6Jeffries, K.N., Jackson, L.J., Ikonomou, M.G., and H.R. Habibi. 2010. Presence of natural and anthropogenic organic contaminants and potential fish health impacts along two river gradients in Alberta, Canada. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 29(10). 2379-2387.

7Cloke, P., and Johnston, R. 2005. Spaces of Geographical Thought: Deconstructing Human Geography’s Binaries. London: Sage Publishing.