Wading the Creek

Written by Andrew Wiebe, a Research Associate at the University of Waterloo

May 2024

I had studied this particular creek during my PhD, but I had never actually walked many of its reaches. Few people today probably have. Alder Creek winds its way from the uplands of the Waterloo Moraine down to the Nith River. The rolling hills of the watershed are covered with agricultural fields, pastures, gravel pits, and golf courses near the urban edges of Kitchener-Waterloo in southern Ontario.

Wendell Berry says that you need to get out of your car or off your horse and walk the land in order to discover its wonders (Berry, 1991). Yet, the typical approach in my profession is moving more and more toward a desktop study of natural areas using computer models. Field data are just too expensive to collect in terms of money and time. So, we compile the relevant geological (soil and rocks) and hydrological (precipitation and streamflow and evaporation-related) datasets, estimate the ones we don’t have, and let the computer crunch the numbers. It’s a level of abstraction and disconnection from natural places that Wendell Berry would deride!

I had previously conducted some field work in the Alder Creek watershed. I had installed weather stations and soil sensors, but I had not waded along most of the creek – until this past summer. Once or twice a week last summer, my co-worker and I got out of our truck, put on chest waders, and walked along the creek. Are the mosquitoes bad? Could we get past the fallen trees? Could we discern different types of water flow – like overland runoff, agricultural tile drain and urban culvert flow, shallow flow over less permeable soil layers, and groundwater flow – into the creek? We brought along a simple temperature sensor on a pole and an infrared camera that sees a heat map rather than a regular photo. The peak of summer is an ideal time to fish for cold (9°C) groundwater upwelling into the warmer creek. Groundwater is an elusive catch, and the process of how and when and where it enters streams is not fully understood. At low flows, essentially all water in the creek comes from the groundwater system – the sustaining groundwater baseflow. During and after rainfall or snowmelt, the streamflow is a complex mix of water from different sources, each flowing at different speeds before entering the creek.

Groundwater supply study site

Groundwater flow weaves spiritual realities through a watershed. Reflections along this theme could be seen as part of the process of ‘learning from the watershed’ – one of the aspects of watershed discipleship identified by Ched Myers (Myers, 2016). Sustaining groundwater flow to a stream (baseflow) – or the replenishment that occurs when percolating soil moisture arrives at the water table (groundwater recharge) – reveal spiritual recharge, the processes by which our souls are replenished and our spirits are revived. God pours into us so that we may pour into others. We must inhale (recharge, spiritually) before we can exhale (act as the hands and feet of Jesus) effectively. “Come away with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest,” Jesus says during a busy season of ministry for his disciples (Mark 6:31). In the natural watershed, our actions as humans can either enhance or reduce the soil’s capacity to transfer rain and snowmelt down through the soil to recharge the water table. Paving over the land tends to cut off groundwater recharge pathways and promote fast overland flow or storm sewer flow to streams, short-circuiting the buffering effect of soil storage and the slower and more consistent groundwater flow to streams. Flood risks may increase. Similarly, our lives pile up with things (even good things), busyness that can impede spiritual recharge. However, groundwater recharge and baseflow to streams occur in diverse places within a watershed in different seasons, and spiritual recharge may likely have similar rhythms for each of us.

Groundwater-fed tributary

When you walk the creek, you see some surprising things – the wonders to which Wendell Berry alludes. Like overland flow gushing on top of the bank above the level of the creek and pouring down into the front door of a mole’s tunnel and disappearing. Like the wild raspberries that ease the journey. Like water backed up behind beaver dams so that it threatens to overtop your waders. Like parklands that emerge out of the bush like elvish realms. Like the abrupt contrasts between ankle deep riffles and deep pools, or the sharp decline in streambed elevation on the scoured out downstream side of a fallen tree. Wendell Berry advised that in order to truly know, understand, and appreciate the land, one needed to get off the horse and walk the contours of the land. Certainly, this applies to the scientific study of creeks and watersheds as well. How can we build computer models of that which we do not understand? And how can we understand unless we get out of the truck and off the road and wade the wild places – the nearly impassable places, and the cool, vegetated corridor places – and portage our equipment over the dams and leaning, drunken cedars? The Indigenous peoples who walked here for centuries before we settlers came must have known and understood the land and the water of this watershed. They knew without a consulting report where the bubbling springs would provide enough water for their communities.

Baseflow study site

Wading long reaches of the creek is slow work. It is expensive in terms of time and effort. Sometimes we would walk for what seemed like kilometres without finding the cold temperature signal of our quarry. And yet Alder Creek did not disappoint us. If we persevered with our walking, we would eventually find evidence of cold groundwater seeping unseen through the streambed sediments or visibly gushing out of the streambank in rivulets. The book of the watershed can instruct us, if we are willing to dismount and intentionally walk the land.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Jim Purvis for discussions about wading the creek. Thanks to Dennis Mighton for sharing about an Indigenous community that lived near a spring in the watershed several hundred years ago.

References:

Berry, W. 1991. Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse: Twenty-seven propositions about global thinking and the sustainability of cities. The Atlantic, Feb 1991.

Myers, C. 2016. A Critical, Contextual, and Constructive Approach to Ecological Theology and Practice, in: Myers, C. (ed.), Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice. Cascade Publications, Eugene, OR, USA.

About the Author

Andrew Wiebe grew up in southern Manitoba, where he learned that his town’s water came from an underground “aquifer”. Later studies in Earth Sciences informed him about the invisible groundwater upon which many communities rely. Andrew has a PhD from the University of Waterloo and has studied groundwater-surface water interactions in Finland and in Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and southern Ontario in Canada. His goal is to study and teach about groundwater science to help us care for Creation.

Click here to check out Andrew’s research, and contact Andrew directly at ajwiebe@gmail.com.