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Water Quality Management of a Cold Climate Region Watershed in Changing Climate

N. K. Shrestha and J. Wang*

    Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI), Athabasca University, 1 University Drive, Athabasca, Alberta, Canada T9S 3A3

*Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-780-394-4883; fax: +1-780-497-3411. E-mail address: (J. Wang).


Cold climate regions provide a multitude of ecosystem services. However, cold regions under a changing climate could be more vulnerable than others because their glaciers, freezing soils and peatlands are sensitive to the slightest of changes in climate. This has posed serious threats to the water resources, sustainable goods production and ecosystem services that depend on regional water quality. Therefore, proper watershed management is imperative. In this paper, we investigate this issue in a cold climate watershed in central Alberta, Canada with the main objective of quantifying the impacts of climate change on water quality status. We modified specific water quality related processes of a process-based model – Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) with a view of better representing the reality of cold climate regions. A SWAT model is then built-up, followed up by a multi-site and multi-objective (streamflow, sediment and water quality) calibration, validation and uncertainty analysis in a baseline period (1983 - 2013). The calibrated and validated model is then fed with a high spatial resolution (25 km) daily future climate data – the CanRCM4. Improvements on stream water temperature (Ts) and dissolved oxygen (DO) simulations justified the modifications. This model is able to simulate the dynamics of other water quality variables (carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand – cBOD, total nitrogen – TN and phosphorus – TP) with a wide range of accuracy (very good to satisfactory) in the base period. Agriculture areas account for the highest amount of annual TN (11.16 kgN/ha) and TP (2.88 kgP/ha) yield rate in the base period leading to poor water quality status in the immediate downstream reaches. The situation would be further exacerbated (16.52 kgN/ha and 4.89 kgP/ha) in future. Finally, we tested different alternative management options to compare the water quality status of the Athabasca River Basin (ARB) under a changing climate. Significant reduction in future nutrient concentrations (~ 20% on TN and 60% on TP) can be achieved using a certain combination of management practices and the ecological status of the basin can be improved. This demonstrates that the modified SWAT model can be applied to other cold climate regions, and that the results can be translated to help in managing the ARB in a more holistic way.

Keywords: cold climate region; Athabasca river basin; water quality; climate change; SWAT; CanRCM4

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