The Elbow River watershed comprises all the land area drained by the Elbow River and its tributaries. At over 1,200 km2, the Elbow River watershed is fairly large in area. Sixty-five per cent of the watershed is located in the Kananaskis Improvement District. The remaining area is divided among the MD of Rocky View (20%), the Tsuu T'ina Nation (10%) and the City of Calgary (5%).
During its journey, the Elbow River passes through the alpine and sub-alpine zones and the parkland and foothills regions.The river drops more than a kilometre in its relatively short 120 km length, from a little over 2000 m above sea level at Elbow Lake to just over 1000 m, where it enters the Bow River. That’s close to a 1% average slope. In contrast, the Bow drops about 2½ km over its 645 km length, which is about a 0.4% slope. The consequence of having such a short and steep river system is that any impacts are readily transmitted downstream; there’s not a lot of opportunity for assimilation or attenuation. When a problem occurs, we realize the effects in short order.
The Elbow River provides water for a variety of uses: agriculture, recreation, residential, and industrial. The river is unique in Canada in that its end use is as a water supply for a municipality. Forty percent of Calgarians receive their drinking water from the Glenmore reservoir.
The headwaters of the watershed are Elbow Lake and, ultimately, Rae Glacier. Elpoca Mountain and Mount Rae dominate the Elbow Lake landscape. Elpoca Mountain is named for two of its streams: the “El” is for the Elbow River, which drains to the east, and the “Poca” is for Pocaterra Creek, which flows west into the Kananaskis River. Pocaterra Creek is named after George Pocaterra, who was a colourful character who lived and explored this region in the early-1900s.
Mount Rae and the Rae Glacier, on the other hand, are named after a famous Arctic explorer, Dr. John Rae, who was renowned for conducting major expeditions in Canada’s Arctic. He was the one who reported back on the fate of the Franklin expedition, a report that wasn’t all that well received back in England, especially when he noted that the men may have had to resort to cannibalism at the end. John Rae wasn’t the discoverer of this mountain, but it was named in his honour in the late 1850s.
The waters of the Elbow River eventually drains into the Hudson Bay.