An Introduction

Healthy watersheds consist of multiple components and perform many functions that keep the ecosystem in balance. The broad and complex nature of interactions within these systems makes it nearly impossible to measure watershed health directly, or to measure every component of that ecosystem.

As such, a set of defined and easily measurable attributes (State of the Watershed Indicators) that reflect the conditions and dynamics of the broader ecosystem can provide information about the conditions and trends within a watershed.


Watershed health indicators can be a measure of a single parameter, otherwise known as a metric (eg: water temperature, E. coli concentration, dissolved oxygen), or an index that incorporates a number of metrics or measured parameters (eg: the River Surface Water Quality Index or the River Flow Quantity Index).

The advantages of a multi-metric indicator is its ability to represent measurements of many parameters in a single number; its ability to combine numerous parameters with different measurement units in a single number; and its effectiveness as a communication tool.

Disadvantages of using an index as an indicator include: a loss of information on single variables; the loss of information on interactions between variables; and the sensitivity of the results to the formulation of the index.

Read more... about State of the Watershed indicators (definitions, goals, types, etc).

Divider SEAWA State of the Watershed Indicators

SEAWA has carefully selected an initial set of indicators to illustrate changes in the basin’s condition and stresses over time, and to measure the organization’s progress towards meeting the objectives and outcomes of its watershed management plan.

The State of the Watershed indicators have been categorized by the watershed element they represent (i.e., water quantity, water quality, landscape and biological community). For each of the SEAWA State of the Watershed Indicators, a range of values has been established to illustrate and report on the condition of that indicator (from NATURAL to GOOD to FAIR to CAUTIONARY ).

While some of the indicators have unique descriptions for their various threshold levels, each of the icons representing an indicator have generally been color-coded to represent the following conditions:


When the recorded value for an indicator changes such that the health of the watershed has been improved, the status associated with that indicator might be upgraded, resulting in the icon for that indicator changing (as an example) from CAUTIONARY (Red) to GOOD (Green). The goal is to establish scientifically based thresholds for each of these watershed indicators, as well as linking each indicator with as much relevant and recent data as is possible.

The environmental implications and corresponding management actions differ for each of the above conditions. For example, management actions may include reductions in wastewater loading to meet quality triggers or limits, implementation of best management practices to address non-point source problem areas, or some combination of actions depending on the situation.

Over the long term, the indicators will form part of an adaptive management reporting system based on the most current data available. Adaptive management is a proactive process that optimizes decision-making, and aims to improve management and reduce uncertainty through performance assessment.

Water Quantity Indicators

Since the South Saskatchewan River is formed from the joining of the Bow and Oldman Rivers, its flow is dependent primarily on the mountain headwaters of those two river sources (and their tributaries). There are some minor contributions of flow to the South Saskatchewan River from within its sub-basins and smaller tributaries during spring runoff and following heavy rains.

There are two primary sources of River Water Quantity Indicators and Monitoring:

The River Flow Quantity Index (RFQI) is provided by Alberta Environment, and is based on the assumption that a natural average flow regime can be expected to occur about 90 per cent of the time. During the other 10 per cent of the time, the river regime will be naturally at an “above average” or “below average” state (but, these are still considered natural fluctuations and are expected from time to time). However, there will also be some periods of time where the actual recorded flow of the river will be “outside of its normal natural range” and experience significantly higher or lower levels of flow. At this point we could expect to see ecological impacts to the existing aquatic ecosystem becoming more permanent, particularly if conditions are persistent and are not single-year or infrequent occurrences.

The Water Survey of Canada presents ‘real-time’ hydrometric (water quantity) data measured at over 1,700 stations on rivers, streams and lakes across Canada. The main water quantity variables are water level and streamflow.


Read more

about the River Flow Quantity Index in Alberta.

Read more

about water River Flows for the South Saskatchewan River, as monitored by the Water Survey of Canada..



Water Quality Indicators

Water quality in the South Saskatchewan River begins with the water quality of the inflowing Bow and Oldman Rivers. The resulting contributions of surface runoff during the spring and early summer increases total suspended solids and turbidity, along with other water quality issues associated with those particles. Two major contributing factors to the region’s water quality are modifications in river flows by upstream reservoir operations and other diversions, as well as agricultural and municipal return flows.

In general, the indicators for water quality in the SSRSB are based on the number of times that recorded measurements over a one year period “exceeded” the Water Quality Objectives (WQO) for that indicator at that location. With the exception of the River Water Quality Index, the rating (condition) of the water quality indicators is based on the following approach:

Click on each of the links below to learn more about SEAWA’s Water Quality indicators:

River Water Quality:






Landscape and Biological Community Indicators and Conditions

Many of the indicators and conditions relating to Landscape and the Biological Community are currently being developed. Stay tuned as more data and information on these indicators and conditions are released and published.

Divider Data Gaps with Indicators

There currently exists some significant (and several minor) data and information gaps with many of the SEAWA SOW indicators. These gaps are the result of missing or incomplete datasets, infrequent or inconsistent monitoring and sampling practices, and the absence of scientifically-based indicator thresholds. This has resulted in missing knowledge and insights for some of the “Conditions and Indicators” and “Risks and Pressures” sections contained within the sub-basin profiles.

Read more… about these State of the Watershed data gaps.