Our Elbow Watershed

The Elbow River watershed is a small, beautiful area comprised of all the land drained by the Elbow River and its tributaries (over 1,200 square kilometres). During its journey from source to mouth, the Elbow River passes through a broad range of landscapes, from the alpine and sub-alpine high mountains to rolling boreal foothills to aspen parkland. In its relatively short 120 km length, the river drops steeply from 2700 m at Rae Glacier to 1030 m at its confluence with the Bow River — an average slope of one percent (compared to the Bow River’s much shallower 0.4% slope). In such a short steep river system, any impacts are readily transmitted downstream with little opportunity for assimilation or attenuation. When a problem occurs, the effects are felt in short order.

Rae Glacier

The watershed is managed by several jurisdictions: 65 percent by the Kananaskis Improvement District, 20 percent by Rocky View County, 10 percent by the Tsuu T'ina Nation and five percent by the City of Calgary. The Elbow River provides water for one in seven Albertans for agricultural, recreational, residential and industrial uses. For over 120 years, particularly when the larger Bow faced serious pollution challenges, the little Elbow has been relied on to provide clean water for city residents. Today, however, the watershed faces many pressures which jeopardize the quality and quantity of its water — rapidly expanding urban development, increasing industrial activities (oil and gas, forest harvesting) and growing recreational activity

The Elbow's Mountain Headwaters

The source of the Elbow River is found in Rae Glacier on Mount Rae in the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains. About 600 m downslope, pristine Elbow Lake sits in the upper Elbow valley below Elpoca Mountain; from the lake, the nascent Elbow flows north and then east down its broad valley. In the alpine zone at its source, the tiny stream flows past pikas and marmots, and low-growing sparse wildflowers and stunted trees. Lower down by the lake and downvalley, spruce, fir, pine and a variety of shrubs, wildflowers and grasses dominate the landscape in the subalpine.

 Start Of The Elbow River Watershed

Eight mountains in the Opal Range plus Mount Rae and Elpoca Mountain stand guard over the upper watershed divide. Mount Rae — the highest mountain in the watershed — and its glacier are named for Dr. John Rae, renowned for conducting major expeditions in Canada’s Arctic. He was initially discredited by Lady Franklin for his accurate report of the fate of the Franklin expedition. Elpoca Mountain gets its name from the Elbow River and Pocaterra Creek in the Kananaskis valley to the west. Pocaterra Creek is named after George Pocaterra, a colourful Italian Canadian who explored this region in the early 1900s.

Much of this headwaters area is protected as the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park and as part of Kananaskis Country. Wildlife — including black and grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, deer and cougars — frequent the area, not overly bothered by the hikers, cyclists and trail riders who pass through this zone.

The Boreal Foothills in the Middle Watershed

When the Elbow flows out of the Front Ranges, it enters the watershed’s foothills landscape dominated by three great ridges — Jumpingpound, Powderface and Forgetmenot — and Moose and Prairie mountains. Boreal forest of spruce, pine, fir, aspen and balsam poplar covers much of the terrain — a rich environment for wildlife — and here the meandering Elbow has grown considerably. In this industrial development zone in Kananaskis Country, oil and gas operations, extraction of forest products and cattle grazing are found throughout. The watershed supports many recreational activities in this zone — fishing, canoeing and kayaking plus hiking, camping, ATVing, cross-country skiing and trail riding. It is a busy area year-round, watched over by the fire lookout perched on bald Moose Mountain.

The Lower Watershed: Plains, Parkland and the City

Past the hamlet of Bragg Creek, the Elbow enters the agricultural plains with their farm buildings and acreages, extensive pastures and hayfields, interspersed with aspen groves and small shrubby wetlands. Close to the City of Calgary, housing density increases markedly. Within the city, the Elbow is controlled by the Glenmore Dam; its water treatment plant provides drinking water for 40 percent of Calgarians and its reservoir a lake for boating. From the dam to its mouth, the Elbow meanders through subdivisions, parks, golf courses, the Stampede grounds and finally into downtown Calgary where it joins the Bow River on its journey to Hudson Bay.  

Interesting Facts about the Elbow

  • The waters of the Elbow River eventually drain into the Hudson Bay.
  • Forgetmenot Mountain is one of 21 in the Canadian Rockies named after plants.
  • Mount Rae can be seen from Calgary.
  • There are two sets of waterfalls on the Elbow River: Elbow Falls and Edworthy Falls.
  • Calgary’s first hockey game was played on the Elbow River in 1888.
  • The snow patch on Mount Cornwall is the last snow in the area to melt in the spring.
  • The first youth hostel in North America was set up in a tent in the Bragg Creek area.
  • Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Mission, built beside the Elbow River in 1873, was the first church in southern Alberta.
  • The first co-operative in Alberta was the Springbank Rural Electrification Association, formed in 1947.
  • The first manufacturing enterprise in the area was James Walker’s sawmill on the Elbow River in 1882.