Natural Environment Indicators for SOOC 2013

The synopsis: We’re seeing positive trends when it comes to water quality, water consumption, and Christmas bird counts, but pesticide use in Calgary is a concern, and air quality shows mixed results.

Sustainable Calgary’s State of our City tracks 5 indicators of the Natural Environment, including Air Quality, Food Grown Locally, Pesticide Use, Christmas Bird Count and Water Consumption.  Here are some of our results:

Air Quality: Evaluations of Calgary’s air quality are mixed.  Alberta’s goal is to ‘maintain “good” air quality at least 97% of the time in urban areas, with no “poor” air quality events’.   Calgary met these targets in 2008, but we fell short of the former goal at 2 testing stations in 2009, including downtown (good 96% of the time) and in the northwest (95% of the time) (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, 2013).

We have experienced significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Calgary between 1990-2012 (from 24-50% depending on the testing station) and target thresholds have not been exceeded in Calgary or Alberta since 1993, despite decreasing the target acceptable concentration by 25% in 2011  (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, 2013). Siemens Green Cities Index nonetheless found that Calgary ranked poorly when it came to total emissions of nitrogen (rather than local concentrations of nitrogen).  We ranked 23rd  among 27 North American cities with emissions of 50 kg NOx/year, compared to the index average of 20kg.

Food Grown Locally: This trend has been very positive so far!  Community gardens increased from 9 in 2004 to 90 in 2010.  In the same period, the number of farmers’ markets increased from 4 to 14, and 4 orchards were planted as pilot projects.

While community gardens contribute to local food production directly, they are most often touted as places where people find opportunities to learn – about each other, about sustainable food production, about cooking and nutrition – and where people find opportunities to interact.  As such, community gardens can contribute to a neighbourhood’s sense of community, decrease isolation, contribute to local knowledge, and engage citizens in a multitude of issues – on top of being places that provide healthful food with no associated gas bill.

Pesticide Use: This is an area of concern for the Natural Environment.  A few fast facts:

  • Calgary is the largest municipality in Canada without a cosmetic pesticide bylaw.
  • Herbicide use by the City has been on an upward trend since 2003, despite a significant blip in 2008.[i]
  • More Alberta households used pesticides in 2009 than the Canadian average – 33% compared with 15% (Environment Canada, 2012).
  • Only a small portion of Calgary parkland inventory is pesticide free – 0.03% or 7,822 ha –primarily due to voluntary initiatives, and several pilot projects inspired by these initiatives (City Council Commissioners Report, C98-90).
  • In total, 172,131 kg of active ingredients in pesticides was sold in Calgary as domestic pesticide in 2012 (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, 2013).

Why is this important?  Pesticides can harm plants, animals and humans. In their second comprehensive review of research on the effects of pesticides on human health, the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) reiterated its strong recommendation that the public reduce their exposure to pesticides wherever possible (June 19, 2012). The review covering 142 studies showed positive associations between pesticide exposures and various neurological disorders, respiratory diseases as well as reproductive problems.  In addition, the review noted that children in utero are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure. Later in the year the American Academy of Pediatrics released a Policy Statement on Pesticide Exposure in Children (Nov. 2012) with similar findings as the (OCFP) and included associations with childhood cancers.

Surface Water Quality:  Surface water quality, as measured by the water quality index[i], was at an all-time high in the Bow River downstream of Calgary in 2009/2010, based on data dating back to 1996/1997.  Its score of 93 may have been artificially high due to low  low precipitation rates during this time period, but overall, surface water quality has been increasing since a low of 77 – or “fair” – in 2005/2006.  There is a measurable difference between upstream and downstream water quality however, with an upstream score of 99 (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development, 2010).  In 2010, the water quality standard for E. Coli, Health Canada’s most reliable indicator of fecal contamination in freshwater bodies, was exceeded in 0 of 6 samples.  The standard for fecal coliforsms was exceeded in 3 of 6 samples (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, 2011)

Christmas Bird Count:  2012 marked a 5-year high in total number of birds counted, and the second highest ever record of species counted.  It also saw the highest ever number of “birders”, but not the highest number of hours –more people volunteer for the Christmas Bird Count, but fewer hours per capita.  The 2012 numbers include:

The relevance of the Christmas Bird Count is several-fold.  Firstly, it represents more than 100 years of citizen engagement and contribution in science – amazing!  As an environmental indicator, it identifies species at risk and can signal changes to the natural environment.  Lastly, by getting us out into nature, bird-watching can be beneficial to our stress levels and overall health.

Water Consumption: This is an area of tremendous progress and achievement!  Per capita water consumption has been on a continuous decreasing trend since 1984, as seen in the graph below, and 2012 marked the second lowest per capita water consumption, after 2011 (City of Calgary Water Management, 2013).  Use by single family residential homes was the lowest on record, at 237 l/day (City of Calgary, 2013).  Out of 27 major North American cities, Calgary topped the list for least amount of water used per capita in the Siemens’ Green Cities Index.


Water Consumption

What you can do:

  • Install a water meter, low-flush toilet, and rain barrel in your home and garden
  • Consider xeri-scaping your lawn so that is thrives on rainfall alone
  • Avoid the use of pesticides in your yard, and support a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides in Calgary
  • Use safe alternative methods of pest control
  • Get involved in the Christmas Bird Count
  • Visit a farmers’ market and ask your grocer to carry more local produce
  • Undertake energy efficiency measures at home (eg. insulate, turn down the thermostat, seal cracks)
  • Walk, cycle, rollerblade or take transit to work and other locations
  • Support policy measures that protect air, water, and the natural environment
  • Spend time outside!


Thanks all for reading, and stay tuned for more on State of our City Indicators!


[i] Leading up to a Council vote on a cosmetic pesticide bylaw in the latter months of 2008 the City instituted a voluntary moratorium on herbicide use over the summer.

[i] The water quality index takes into account metals, nutrients, bacteria, and pesticides.

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