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NAIT professor launches river study

A local biologist has quietly kicked off one of the biggest studies of the Sturgeon in years. City residents might have noticed a team of students drilling holes in the Sturgeon River over the last two weeks.

A local biologist has quietly kicked off one of the biggest studies of the Sturgeon in years.

City residents might have noticed a team of students drilling holes in the Sturgeon River over the last two weeks. Those students are part of a new two-year study of the river recently organized by Laurie Hunt and Debbie Webb of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, or NAIT.

The Sturgeon is a lot like other rivers in the world, says Hunt, associate chair of biological science at NAIT: it's under pressure from urban, agricultural, and industrial development, and has drawn a lot of concern from its residents.

"The Sturgeon River was named because there used to be sturgeon in the river and Big Lake," she notes, yet there have been no confirmed sightings of the fish in about 25 years. The river is in decline, and will have to be restored for future generations. "We want to be a part of the solution, and we want our students to be part of that solution."

Big study area

A fan of the river and a St. Albert resident, Hunt says she and Webb came up with the Sturgeon River Watershed Project as a way to give students field experience. NAIT, the federal government, and the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) are backing the project.

Starting this May, students will fan out from Hoople Lake in the west to the North Saskatchewan River in the east testing water along the Sturgeon and its tributaries. "It's not just the Sturgeon River," Hunt says. "We're looking at the [entire] watershed."

Students will do basic water quality tests for dissolved oxygen and other measures, Hunt says, focusing on culverts and crossings that could fragment fish habitat. Test locations will be logged with a GPS system for follow-up studies. The results will be forwarded to provincial and federal scientists to guide river rehabilitation efforts.

The students currently on the river are doing a pilot for this larger study, Hunt says. They're testing six sites between Big Lake and Otter Cres. to determine the state of river water during winter.

Catherine Lowe, one of the students on the river, says they're paying particular attention to factors that affect fish life, such as dissolved oxygen. "It looks like the ice is going all the way to the bottom in a lot of places, which probably traps the fish." When they've found liquid water, it's usually had zero oxygen in it.

This suggests that the river is a bad place to be for fish in the winter, she says. "They turn into fish-sicles." Conditions will probably get better for fish come spring, she says; they'll be monitoring the river until June to find out.

Few studies like it

Students and environmental groups have done small studies of rivers within the Sturgeon watershed, but studies of the entire watershed are very rare. (The Gazette knows of two, both of which had substantial data gaps.) Alberta Environment has done three short-term water quality studies of the Sturgeon River in the last 40 years, according to the NSWA; no one has done a long-term review.

The students' initial results line up with what we know about the region, says Daryl Watters, a senior fisheries technologist with the province who works in the Sturgeon. Ice and decaying plants tend to sap Big Lake of much of its winter oxygen, which makes for poor fish conditions downstream.

This basic research will help create a baseline for future studies, Watters says, and help identify influences on the river. "It gives you a starting point to look at. Is there a way of fixing these things or are these all natural events?" It would have been great if someone had been doing this research a century ago, he notes.

Hunt says she hopes to bring local schools and environmental groups into the project as well. "I'd ultimately like to see sturgeon back in the Sturgeon River."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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