PUBLISHED: 29 January 2016

2015 Climate Vulnerability and Sustainable Water Management in the SSRB Project

“The SSRB Water Project”


Water is fundamental to community sustainability and growth, and the way water is managed in the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) will and has become even more important in the face growing demand combined with climatic and environmental change. A project that launched in spring 2014 capitalized on the interest and experience of seasoned water stakeholders. Individuals actively collaborated to develop and test various analytical tools for the Red Deer River basin. The results of this work were integrated to complete the suite of such tools for the entire South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) and build on the experience and findings of previous similar activities in the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan River sub-basins. Concurrently, the project explored and implemented approaches to introduce physically-based land use modelling to better describe future climatic and environmental change in the SSRB and how those changes might affect water resources and water users.

In Spring 2013, Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions awarded funding to Alberta WaterSMART for the Climate Vulnerability and Sustainable Water Management in the SSRB Project. This project built on two preceding collaborative initiatives:

  • The 2010 Bow River Project which developed a mass balance river system model with specific performance measures for the Bow River sub-basin, and then used these tools to explore, test and recommend changes in river management for the net benefit of environmental, social and economic interests.
  • The 2012-14 SSRB Adaptation Project which extended the process to the Oldman and South Saskatchewan River sub-basins and introduced potential future climate variability and change into the discussion and analysis.

This initiative built upon and integrated existing data, tools, capacity and knowledge of water users and decision makers to improve understanding and explore how to manage for the range of potential impacts of climatic and environmental change throughout the SSRB’s river systems. This innovative work brought together inter-related water issues, to help stakeholders better understand the range of potential impacts and changes throughout the SSRB and identify adaptation options that can be readily implemented to best assure that these resources continue to meet Albertans’ environmental, social and economic needs.

Project Phases

Develop the Red Deer Mass Balance River System Model

The first stream of activity built a comprehensive mass balance river system model for the Red Deer River basin, and developed climate variability scenarios for use in the model. Water users, decision makers and interested parties in the Red Deer basin guided and informed the model-based work, incorporating an environmental and climate adaptation focus. The group used the river system model to collaboratively model options such as management practices or infrastructure options for adapting to potential future changes in climate.

Integrate and Update the SSRB Mass Balance Model

In the second stream, the river system models and performance measures for the Red Deer, Bow, Oldman, and South Saskatchewan River basins were integrated and updated into a consolidated SSRB model. This consolidated model was used by representatives from all the sub-basins to identify and explore options for improved river management and adaptation throughout the entire SSRB. Using the integrated river system model, climate scenarios, and available data from physically-based land use models, this working group collaboratively modelled options for adapting to potential future environmental and climatic changes.

Develop Physically-Based Land Use Modelling Capabilities for the SSRB 

The third stream explored a range of land use models that are capable of modelling changes in land use and climate, and translating those changes into impacts on river flows. That data was then used in the river system modelling to explore and implement approaches to adapt to changes that future climatic and environmental change could have on water users in the SSRB. This work included a pilot of appropriate land use models to see how they can be integrated with the river system model to help inform collaborative and integrated river management.

Growth in southern Alberta in the face of fluctuating water supply underscores the need for adaptive management of this crucial resource. The global effort to mitigate climate change must be paralleled with an equal local effort on adaptation in Alberta to reduce the risks to water resources that will come as a result of climate change. An adaptive management approach aims to develop resilient and adaptive capacity to respond to a wide range of different situations by exploring what we can do with today’s infrastructure and management and then look at what else could be done now and into the future. It also aims to raise social awareness of potential flood and drought risks in support of efforts to get appropriate water management arrangements in place now.

The result of this project is a final report putting forward the Adaptation Roadmap for Sustainable Water Management in the SSRB including adaptation strategies already being implemented and three levels of adaptation strategies to further build the adaptive capacity of water management in the SSRB. This project was about involving people who have specific knowledge and responsibilities for water management and a keen interest in water stewardship, a strong understanding of climate, and a willingness to develop and maintain collaborative management approaches in the SSRB. It significantly advanced the shared understanding of potential environmental and climatic change in the SSRB and explored implementable opportunities to adapt while balancing the diverse interests of the watershed.