The trickle down effect

Who among us hasn't washed a car in the driveway, sending soapy water into the gutter and smiling with satisfaction at the resulting shine? The activity seems harmless, even joyful – a small celebration of warm weather and pride of ownership. What most of us don't realize is that the chemical residue in that sudsy rinse spills straight into the storm drain and trickles, untreated, back into the river from where it came. It's true. Anything that goes into a storm drain – be it soap, oil, lawn fertilizer or any other potentially harmful substance – takes a direct path into the water we ultimately drink, cook with and bathe in. Surprised? You're not alone.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the many ways we negatively impact our water supply – a fact that Stephanie Palechek (BSc '01) has made her life's mission to change.

Stephanie Palechek works to raise awareness about the importance of healthy water systems.

As executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council (OWC), Palechek works to raise awareness about the importance of healthy water systems and makes strides toward positive change.

"Everybody uses water, but not everyone thinks about where it comes from or how significant it really is," Palechek says. "Literally everything we do every day relies on having a good, clean and abundant supply of water."

Formed in 2003, the OWC is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with communities and individuals to maintain and improve the condition of the Oldman River watershed. Members of the OWC provide leadership and guidance in watershed planning, management and quality monitoring. In addition, they promote the implementation and integration of sustainable water-use practices. Palechek joined the OWC after working on the Partners in Habitat Development program with the St. Mary River Irrigation District.

The list of issues Palechek and her dedicated team of colleagues and volunteers attempt to tackle is extensive, ranging from water scarcity and habitat protection, to irrigation and best gardening practices. As diverse as these issues seem, they boil down to one primary objective: increasing awareness of the importance of clean water and how to best use it.

"We're not going to run out of water in Canada any time soon, but we do need to properly manage our supply to make sure that never happens," Palechek says.

Increased recreation and development in the headwater areas of the Oldman River has put a strain on the water supply in recent years, as have the effects of climate change and a growing population. While the challenges are serious, Palechek sees positive changes in the way people think about water.

"Water issues are on the public's radar now," Palechek says. "We're seeing more people come to our events and ask questions, looking for information and ways to help."

In September 2009, the OWC will release a State of the Watershed report to the general public – a document that compiles studies that assess the overall health and cleanliness of the Oldman watershed. After the release, the OWC will look to community leaders, researchers and volunteers to help develop and implement an Integrated Watershed Management Plan to help ensure the ongoing maintenance and improvement of the watershed in southern Alberta.