North Saskatchewan River, AB - Konstantin von Gunten
My Watermark is the North Saskatchewan River, Alberta.
When I came from Switzerland to Edmonton, the North Saskatchewan River was the first water body in Canada I got a relationship with. I lived near the river, so I was often walking along the banks. Soon I realized how important the river was for the city of Edmonton. I saw what forces were concealed behind the peacefully appearing stream, forces that formed the diverse landscape the city was built on. The meandering river carved high, impressive looking banks and deposited broad, biodiverse flood plains in its territory, revealing treasures from the past, geological layers, coal seams and remains of forgotten human constructions. The river allowed the city of Edmonton to emerge and to expand to today's boundaries. It is giving us water for the industry, agriculture and our cooling systems and it reliably disposes of our waste waters. The river is like a huge pollution abatement facility, carrying away and cleaning our waste waters.
Unfortunately, I soon realized how endangered this system is. Uncontrolled pollutant releases from adjacent facilities and large amounts of wastes are still problems to solve. Along the banks you can find all kind of plastic and other wastes, including car tires, metal and PVC drainage pipes and plastic sheets. Together with my girlfriend, I started to collect and quantify the wastes, soon finding out that along one kilometer of the North Saskatchewan River more than 54 kg of small size wastes can be found, consisting mainly of plastics and cloths (80%), scrap iron (12%) and recyclable materials (8%), such as glass, aluminum cans and PET bottles. This amount does not include tires and large scrap iron pieces we found (bike frames, draining pipes, barrels), since we had a hard time to weight them. They would increase the stated weight by at least 3 times.
Those wastes, especially the plastic wastes, degrade very slowly, polluting the environment for a long period of time. Degradation products are entering the food chain and are hazardous for human and environmental health. Some of the waste pieces are directly threatening animals and humans. Sharp glass and metal pieces can be dangerous for people on the beaches and six pack rings can entangle birds.
Many wastes were obviously coming from people spending time near the river (near fire places), others were probably transported by wind or water into the river (plastic bags, gardening utensils). We also found that many cloth wastes were originating from sleeping places left behind by homeless people. This showed us, that the pollution problem we were facing is also a social problem and as long as people are forced to live outdoor and under very harsh conditions, wastes will be generated directly near the river.
The pollution along the North Saskatchewan River is probably a good example for other water bodies in Canada. We don't know yet if most of the wastes came into the river by accident (storm events), by negligence, ignorance or even by ill will. Sometimes it just hurts to see how little respect people show to the river, which actually allows them to live where they live and to do what they do.
I hope, we all will do better in respecting the North Saskatchewan River, so that we can pass on a healthy and unpolluted river to future generations.