Bow Valley Riparian Recovery and Enhancement Program

Starting in 2014, the “Bow Valley Riparian Recovery and Enhancement Program” was off to a good first year. The program objective was to restore riparian habitat to three local streams that were in need of some attention. Those streams are Bighill Creek, West Nose Creek and Nose Creek. All of the above are tributaries that flow into the Bow River. By the end of the year 2019, a total of 71,914 native willow and tree plants have been planted in the program. All of the planting is carried out by volunteers.

This reach of the Bighill Creek shows no willow plants along the stream banks. Prior to planting native willows and trees the creek channel is barren of woody plants and the stream channel is exposed to the bright sunlight. Now check out the photo below for some of the results of our planting program.
This photo of the site, after planting, was taken from the exact same spot as the photo before planting was taken. You can see the willow crop is now growing fast and over time it will hide much of the creek beneath a canopy of willow and tree growth.

Willow planting is a great way to restore over head cover habitat and in-channel fish habitat and stream bank stability. The end result will be more fish and cleaner flowing water, thanks to a huge reduction in silt loading from unstable stream banks with soil and clay entering the creek channel annually. A stable network of roots helps to hold the soil together and the buffer of willow growth along a creek also filters much of the ground surface run-off, before it enters the creek. It has been proven that woody growth along streams will also enhance trout spawning habitats over time. The submerged woody debris and live limbs from willows, helps to collect and enhance spawning gravel in riffle areas, where trout will spawn.

Volunteer planters can come in groups of all ages, students or corporate groups. All of the planting is done by hand, with eager volunteers. Above, this group of students from CW Perry middle school, wasted no time in getting right to work. The red planting tools and everything else is supplied by Bow Valley Habitat Development and its partners.
The native willows and trees are transferred from bundles of one hundred plants to a five gallon bucket with black plastic liner, to keep the roots from drying out during the planting projects. This efficient method of transporting and moving plants makes the whole task a lot easier. Smaller planting bags are provided for small groups of planters.
This is what the plants look like, one month after planting. Muskrats, voles and mice will graze on the small limbs and leaves, but this is just part of the planting hazards. Success can vary from 20% survival to 80%, depending on the variables. Flooding can take its toll as well.
This photo shows what the willow plants look like, a few years after they were planted in this stream bank, on West Nose Creek, in the City of Calgary.
Large corporate groups played a major role in the riparian planting program, with both volunteer planters and purchasing plants for the program. A half day out of the office was well received by most of the planting crew. The Bow Valley Riparian Recovery and Enhancement Program is active in three major centers, the City of Calgary, City of Airdrie and the town of Cochrane, so large group plantings were organized in all three communities.

The willow and tree plants that are grown from native stock cuttings, which are small at first, but over time they will grow and produce the obvious benefits of a riparian habitat, in years to come. In the first few years after planting, the new willows will start to cast seed and promote new native growth from seeds that are dispersed in the area and downstream. The growth is exponential.

This is one of our willows that was planted right along the water’s edge. You can see the seed catkins are casting seeds downstream in the water and blown in the wind to disperse. The heavy growth of canary grass that relaxes down into the stream channel every fall, has also bent this willow plant down over the water. This is all good for the stream’s fish habitat. Imagine what this plant will look like with a few more years of growth. (See Below)
These willows were planted the first year of the program and now they are providing excellent small stream fish habitat. Additional plantings have also taken place recently, so the site is coming along just as we hoped it would. This type of fish habitat enhancement is pretty easy on the eyes, and it is all natural.
In this photo, you can see how the willows are growing out and over the water’s surface. This photo was taken on West Nose Creek. Beavers have been grazing on our willow crop, but this is just normal, the plants will continue to grow, as nature intended. The beavers don’t bother with our plants until they are large enough to make a meal. By then the willows are rooted enough to handle any sort of heavy beaver grazing.

Stream Bank Stabilization Sites

The most obvious planting success stories are the stream bank erosion sites that have been planted with primarily willow plants. These sites also reap the largest benefits that are quite apparent after only a few years. In some cases, what were once terrible eroding stream banks, where tonnes of clay and soil slide into the creek every year, are now stabilizing slopes with a buffer of green growth, along the water’s edge.

The eroding stream bank in this photo, has just been planted with its first crop of native willow plants. This is how it all starts, on a really bad erosion site. Below is what the results will show, over time.
This stream bank was planted a year earlier, it is still early spring when I took this photo. You can see the scope of the erosion damage and get a pretty good idea of how much clay and soil is washed away downstream every year. See the photo below.
This is the same stream bank, six years later. The willow growth has been slow, but that is alright. The soil is mostly clay, along the water’s edge, so this explains why it is a slow grow area. The main thing is that the stream bank is on its way to full stabilization. You can see in this photo, how the willows prevented a chunk of sod from going into the water. Over time, the slope will adjust to a totally stable site.
This eroding stream bank has been planted two years earlier. Now look at the photo below.
This is a photo, taken from the same position above, that shows how our willow plants have grown over a few years time. The buried cable was checked with first call and it is not a live or used cable.
This is a photograph of the fence bank stabilization site, before we planted native willows along the water’s edge.
This is the site, after a few years of growth along the water’s edge. You can see the native willows are really starting to take hold on the creek. The eroding stream bank is protected from further toe erosion at the outside bend.

One of the truly biggest rewards a planter can get, apart from the satisfaction of doing something beneficial to the streams ecology, is watching the plants grow over the years. There is a slow transformation that is taking place and you can witness it first hand. I like using before and after photo to demonstrate the positive change that is occurring. But sometimes just a photo of new growth will heighten our enthusiasm and help keep the program going.

These native willows shown above, were planted in 2014, on West Nose Creek. They have struggled thru a few major flood events, but they are still hanging on and things will only get better over the years.

Program Update for September 2020

Just completed the seventh year of the program, so it was nice to let you know all is going as planned. Except for the pandemic of course! This year, in the spring, I planted 3,400 native willow and tree plants myself. I had to cancel the school groups planting that was planned for the spring, which is expected. Despite this drawback, the program is now responsible for a total planting count of 75,214 native willow and tree plants, since the first year in 2014. I am happy to report another 8th year of planting will occur in 2021. The program will stay scaled down, due in part to the lack of volunteer help, besides myself.

As the old saying goes; “The show Must Go On!” and that is exactly what I plan on working towards. However, this next year, I am going to concentrate on the Bighill Creek, alone!