Our biggest event of the year – Rally for the River – was held September 7th and 8th 2017 in Red Deer. The rally marked the culmination of months of planning, and also the broadening of our work through Project Blue Thumb to include more voices and spark new ideas. Read on for a quick recap of the event.

Rally for the River was co-hosted by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust, and held at the Red Deer Golf & Country Club. We were joined by the amazing visual facilitator, Julie Murray, who captured the conversation through illustration.

Day 1

The first day of the Rally brought together invited stakeholders and Project Blue Thumb alumni to network, discuss key water issues, and and explore potential breakthroughs.

We started out with some activities to get to know one another, and then shared our hopes and fears in the context of watershed management.

Most of the day was spent exploring six new Action Pathways – six areas meant to guide shared efforts in the watershed. Participants helped to chart a new course forward for each of these pathways.

project blue thumb river rally red deer graphic recording illustration watershed action pathways progress julie murray

Participants were able to explore Action Pathways at different multisensory stations featuring crafts, conversation cafés, and learning prompts. Then mapped what’s already going on in relation to each pathway. It always feels good to get hands on!

The guiding theme for the day was “exploration”. In the afternoon, we started to explore the future course of each action pathway, and “blazed the trail” into uncharted territory. In small groups, participants discussed what progress might look like – including ideas for actions and markers of success. Ideas for action are definitely not in short supply!

All in all, Day 1 helped us explore “what is possible” for the future of this watershed. It was also thrilling to see the number of people who signed up to either lead or support various action pathways!

Day 2

The second day of the Rally saw us open our doors to the public and broaden overall participation. It also doubled as the RDRWA’s 2017 Fall Forum.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Brad Stelfox, gave a riveting talk about past, present, and future land uses in the Red Deer River watershed, and stressed the need for action. Dr. Stelfox is the architect of the ALCES (A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator) platform, which allows diverse stakeholder groups to have science-based conversations about the benefits and challenges of various land uses.

Then it was time to put our work from Day 1 to the test, and have our new guests and participants explore the Action Pathways in any way that served their style of discovery. We had a creative building challenge, a watershed café, and chances for deeper dialogue.

We brought people together for the Rally to explore the urgency of the difficult issues we face in the Red Deer River Watershed and kickstart action. Before the end of Day 2, we asked participants to share their level of interest in being involved in Phase 2, and were happy to see a strong interest in leading or supporting future work.

If you missed us at the Rally, but one of these sounds like you, please don’t hesitate to contact Amy at a.spark@albertaecotrust.com.

A big thank you to our supporters and event sponsors: ConocoPhillips Canada, the RBC Foundation, Plains Midstream, the Government of Alberta, and Repsol.

Thank you for joining us at Rally for the River! Stay tuned for a “What We Heard” report and more information about next steps for Project Blue Thumb and the Action Pathways.

Earlier this year, we shared that we were getting ready to pivot to Phase II of Project Blue Thumb (PBT) – a phase with more focus, broader engagement, and targeted action. Now the time has come to reveal more about the new strategic direction we’ll take to improve and maintain water quality in the Red Deer River Watershed.

PBT began knowing we needed to shift away from fixed, long-term planning to more iterative and adaptive planning based on learning and experimentation. Over the last year or so, we have been practicing this adaptive approach to action and developed six Action Pathways to focus our efforts. These (still draft) Action Pathways were officially announced at the Rally for the River on September 7th and 8th 2017.

The Action Pathways grew out of our previous work in Phase I of PBT: interviews with thought leaders from across Alberta about the future of our water system, and longstanding work led by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance related to planning. We believe these pathways represent key leverage points for positive change in the Red Deer River Watershed.

We invite you to explore the pathways through the incredible graphic illustrations recorded by Julie Murray, and join us as we work to spark collaborative actions related to each pathway. We envision new research initiatives, “boots on the ground” projects, communications campaigns, and more – but to really make progress, we need people committed to action. If you want to learn more about how you can participate in PBT, or work with others on these action pathways, please contact Amy at a.spark@albertaecotrust.com. And, stay tuned as we announce more opportunities to get involved!

project blue thumb river rally red deer action pathways graphic illustration recording Julie Murray


Building Alberta Water Narratives

project blue thumb river rally red deer Alberta water narratives graphic illustrationIndividuals and institutions often make decisions based on existing modes of thought. For example, there is currently a focus on treating water instead of protecting it at the source, an idea that wetlands can be moved or replaced with little consequence, and the notion that some water is “waste”. All of these are narratives – not concrete truth. This pathway is about building effective messaging for freshwater protection and resilience, and taps into the power of storytelling to inspire change. Facts by themselves do not motivate action; instead stories that tap into people’s diverse values can move people up the literacy ladder and toward action (values to emotion to action). To move the dial on watershed protection, this pathway harnesses the power of values-based messaging and supports creative communications to influence heads, hearts, and policy.



Promoting Ecological Function

project blue thumb river rally red deer ecological function graphic illustration

This pathway supports and enhances critical hydrological connectivity and ecosystem function across the watershed. Ecosystems are just that – systems – that are built on interconnected relationships between water, land, and living beings. When the connectivity between landscape structures (such as wetland complexes, alluvial aquifers, fish spawning grounds, shorelines, and headwater streams) is disrupted, ecosystem function begins to break down. Through this pathway, we will develop a clear understanding of the presence and function of existing ecological infrastructure across the watershed, and use this knowledge to guide future growth patterns at the landscape level. This pathway also explores various ways of quantifying the value of ecosystem goods and services to influence decision-making.



Creating Municipalities of the Future

project blue thumb river rally red deer future municipalities graphic illustrationThis pathway is about next-generation municipal water systems and water management. What does the future hold for municipal drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems? How can urban and rural municipalities, as major land-use decision-makers, better work to protect local watersheds while protecting citizens from extreme weather events like drought and flood? Municipalities face a broad range of challenges: aging infrastructure, stretched resources, population and demographic changes, and climate change, among others. Yet municipalities also have many opportunities: grey and green infrastructure, land-use planning, water sharing agreements, regionalization of water systems, etc. This pathway focuses on building strong relationships with municipal partners to address priority issues ranging from source water protection to municipal capacity building.


Upholding Indigenous Voices

The Red Deer River watershed spans the ancestral territories of Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 First Nations, and the water flowing across these territories connects us all. This pathway supports initiatives in which Indigenous peoples are leading innovation about how to sustain land and water. It also champions the role of the First Nations in water co-management by including indigenous voices at key decision-making tables, aligning land-use planning with traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and promoting a long-term view that supports future generations. We ask Indigenous communities how we can support their work, and coordinate Indigenous Awareness & TEK training for non-Indigenous people.


Strengthening Water Security

project blue thumb river rally red deer water security graphic illustrationIncreasing demand for water resources (across municipal, agricultural, and energy sectors) coupled with altered precipitation patterns through climate change, are putting pressure on regional water supplies. In a watershed that is water-secure, the needs of humans and the economy are met without compromising the needs and health of the ecosystem. This pathway strives to make the watershed water-secure, knowing this is possible only by recognizing our role within the wider water system. Opportunities to strengthen water security and reduce water stress are explored, such as water reuse, preserving key landscape features, water sharing agreements, and innovating new solutions.


Food Production of the Future

project blue thumb river rally red deer food of the future graphic illustration

Alberta is not unique in the fact that its cultural identity is linked with food (burgers on the grill, anyone?). However, Albertans do have a uniquely deep love of our land and big skies. This pathway explores how we can develop a food production system in central Alberta to ensure prime watershed and human health, aligning our actions to the love we have for our landscape. Many technologies and best practices exist to reduce the strains on water quality posed by the agricultural sector: digital soil mapping, precision fertilization, and riparian fencing as a few examples. This pathway engages with both the small- and large-scale food producer community to support riparian restoration, the efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides, erosion mitigation, and the avoidance of wetland draining.




Come see Project Blue Thumb in action! We are opening our doors to social innovation and our water lab with our Rally for the River: Breaking Through on Water Challenges on Sept 8th. All are welcome.

The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust are partnering to launch a new strategic approach for watershed health in the region. Join us for engaging speakers and an interactive workshop with water thinkers and doers from across the province.

This event is the official launch of Phase II of our Lab, with a focus on six Action Pathways. Come explore these paths toward watershed health with us!

Date: Friday September 8th, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Location: Red Deer Golf & Country Club (4500 Fountain Drive, Red Deer)

Please RSVP by August 30th

Register here or contact a.spark@albertaecotrust.com for more information.



Rally for the River


Often our best insights come from the act of conversation. We think as we talk, we talk as we think. Hopefully there’s some listening in there too. Through dialogue, we can build upon the insights of others, examine our assumptions, and deepen connections.

Dialogue is a big part of what Project Blue Thumb is all about. Structured as a social innovation Lab, we recognize that robust, sometimes tough, discussions fostered in safe spaces allow us to identify and navigate potential solutions that we may not have discovered on our own or through traditional methods. There is a special kind of magic that happens when you make space for reflection that can unleash people’s creativity.

With this in mind, we entered 2017 striving for new water conversations beyond the Lab space we worked in over the past two years and into the wider water community.

But why? A lot has changed since the Lab began. There have been political, environmental, technological, and economic changes. We’ve seen a few Lab members come and go, and are also in the process of shifting into a new Lab phase. We think it is time to update our perspective on the water community and water system in Alberta, and to engage a broader group of people. We invited several people outside of the Lab and active in the water sphere to share their thoughts.

Between February and April, the Project Blue Thumb Secretariat met with thirteen thought leaders across southern and central Alberta to ask some provocative questions about the future of Alberta’s water system. We reached out to those who are working directly or indirectly on water from various disciplines, knowing that water quality affects us all. These conversations will help inform the strategic action focus Lab participants are asking for. Thank you to those who shared their thoughts with us!

Hilary Young - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation InitiativeLaura Lynes, The Rockies Institute

Stephen Legault & Hilary Young, Yellowstone to Yukon

Bill Snow, Stoney Tribal Administration

Dr. Nick Ashbolt, University of Alberta School of Public Health

Brett Purdy, Alberta Innovates

Kim Sturgess, Alberta WaterSMART Solutions Ltd.

Rachel de Vos, Alberta Urban Municipalities Association

Keith Ryder, Red Deer River Municipal Users Group

Shannon Frank, Oldman Watershed Council

Lisa Maria Fox, Sustainability Resources Ltd.

Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler, University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design

Dr. Vic Adamowicz, University of Alberta Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

Thank you to our dedicated Lab members, Larry Wright and Jean Bota, who participated and assisted in the interview process.  Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing insights from these interviews in a series of blog posts through the Alberta WaterPortal.

What have we learned through this process? That water issues in Alberta are viewed through various lenses – such as social justice, cultural identity, and value – among others. We’ve heard that water issues and First Nations rights are massively intertwined and poised to play a bigger role in the conversation.  We’ve learned that crisis, security, and resilience are top of mind for many Albertans. Also, that people value the work that Project Blue Thumb is doing, and we’ve still got a lot of important work ahead of us.

Insights from this interview series guided the development of six Action Pathways, designed to provide a strategic direction to our work without losing the magic of emergent spaces and ideas. The action pathways build off of work done within the lab space over the last two years. Our next step is to refine these action pathways with the core lab team again. What needs to be modified or changed?  What do we want to focus on first? Where do we see the greatest need for innovation? Where are the most strategic interventions? There is a lot of fuel here to energize our work.

Also, be sure to follow the interview series as we post every two weeks through the Alberta WaterPortal blog

Article 1: Water & Headwaters as Cultural Identity: Stephen Legault, Hilary Young, and Kim Sturgess on cultural identity.

Article 2: New Water Paradigms: Interviews with Dr. Nick Ashbolt and Shannon Frank. 

Article 3: Water Worth: Dr. Vic Adamowicz, Brett Purdy, and Laura Lynes on valuing water.

Article 4: Active Reconciliation: Bill Snow illuminates an Indigenous water context.

Article 5: Municipalities: Keith Ryder, Sofie Forsström, and Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler on challenges for municipalities.

Article 6: Reflections on Water for Life: Lisa Maria Fox and Brett Purdy reflecting on Alberta’s Water for Life framework.

You can find us on Twitter @BlueThumbLab and join the conversation at #ABwater.

We like to think every year should build on the previous one. If Project Blue Thumb was born in 2015, then 2016 was the year our fledgling network really began to take flight. We’ve gathered some of our favourite numbers and stories from the year to share with you. Also, we recap how far we’ve come versus where we are going. Please take this opportunity to explore how we’ve been building a water movement and amplifying voices across the Red Deer River watershed as part of Project Blue Thumb.

Download the PBT 2016 Year in Review.

Since launching in early 2015, a diverse team of individuals from industry, government, and civil society have been participating in Project Blue Thumb – a social lab aimed at protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. In this post, the Lab Secretariat presents three pivots in direction for Project Blue Thumb as we enter 2017 and Phase II of the lab.

“Water is life”.

These words were fixed in the headlines of major newspapers throughout 2016. It was a high-profile year for water: Standing Rock activism lifted water issues into broader public awareness, algae bloomed in some of Alberta’s best recreational lakes, whirling disease was found in the Bow River watershed, and oil spilled into the North Saskatchewan river. These headline grabbing events, among others, put water – and our human relationship to this vital resource – front and centre.

In central Alberta, a community of people are already working together to protect water. This growing group – Project Blue Thumb – came together to participate in a social lab aimed at maintaining and improving water quality in central Alberta. Since launching, we have learned more about our watershed, built new relationships, and tested ideas to protect the water. We have a lot to celebrate (our 2016 Year-in-Review report will be posted shortly) and even more to look forward to.

With 2017 now underway, we are granted the opportunity to think about goals for the year ahead. We hope 2017 will be a year of greater visibility and expanding impact for Project Blue Thumb.  As we begin Phase II of the lab, we highlight three key shifts in our work:

  1. Identifying key Action Pathways to move forward strategically

Over the past seven workshops, we talked a lot about the various drivers behind water quality issues and the key ‘leverage points’ around which we should organize our efforts. Participants asked for more focus, and the time has come to put pen to paper and put our collective vision into the world. These ‘action pathways’ will help us organize and coordinate the lab’s work moving forward, while outlining major needs in the watershed system to share with an expanding network.

We aren’t starting from scratch. Between the lab’s Theory of Change and all the discussions to date, the Lab Secretariat is busy pulling together a working draft. We will then invite feedback through lab networks. We believe articulating these pathways will help the lab in terms of focus, collective impact, and our ability to connect with key organizations and partners in Alberta. More information on our action pathways coming soon!

  1. Moving the focus on ‘prototypes’ to an ‘action toolbox’

The lab isn’t just a think tank, it is also a ‘do tank’ premised on the need for systemic and collaborative approaches to complex water issues. Since launching, we have been identifying bite-sized pieces of an issue around which we can experiment through prototyping.  We have learned the invaluable skill of letting bad ideas go and how to ‘kill our darlings’.  With our action pathways in place however, Project Blue Thumb will focus less on prototypes and more on tools for building lasting, systemic change to water quality and watershed management. We foresee new projects and initiatives linked specifically to the various action pathways.

  1. Expanding circles of engagement

The lab up to this point has placed a heavy emphasis on the internal building of our lab team. Together, we’ve built our shared knowledge, our networks, our skills, and tested key ideas through prototyping. Now we are ready to ask the question: What else is needed? Or rather, who else? In 2017, we will be encouraging lab team members to step up as convenors and catalysts in their own networks. Additionally, we will be looking to expand the circle of participation.  Currently we have the Lab members and Lab Secretariat; we will begin to expand this group to include new lab team members, guest speakers, content advisors, etc.  Please contact Josée Méthot at josee.methot@rdrwa.ca if you would like to get involved.


On a beautiful fall prairie morning on September 20, 2016, approximately 30 people gathered near the Alberta-Saskatchewan provincial border to discuss our shared waters, upstream and downstream dynamics, and how we might work together across borders. The initial idea for this event came from a Project Blue Thumb participant, Dr. Graham Strickert, from the University of Saskatchewan who said: “Hey! Why don’t we connect people from upstream and downstream more often?”

Rivers know no borders. As they flow across a landscape, so too do they flow through our lives, tracing a story of natural and human history, and ignoring political lines. These rivers act as connectors, linking remote landscapes with communities far downstream – a thread among us.

In Alberta, three mighty rivers – the Red Deer, Bow, and Oldman rivers – flow across the landscape from west to east, eventually joining to form the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow and Oldman Rivers meet first, and the Red Deer River joins later, a few miles inside Saskatchewan. All three rivers are fed from the Rocky Mountains, and their waters travel across provinces en route to Lake Winnipeg, and ultimately to Hudson’s Bay.


From origin to outlet, these rivers roam across a huge portion of Canada’s interior landscapes. Yet somehow, despite the obvious hydrologic thread that connects us as Canadians, we forget to reach out to people living upstream and downstream of us. With this in mind, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) and partners decided it was high time to connect with more of our neighbours downstream. We decided to host an event – a tea party! – and invited guests from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers.

A morning in Empress, AB

On a beautiful prairie fall morning we met in the Village of Empress in eastern Alberta – only 500 meters from the provincial border. We were a diverse group, including people from Alberta and Saskatchewan watershed groups, municipal and provincial governments, the University of Saskatchewan, municipal water management groups, First Nations, and local residents. Two participants – Gary and Karen Carriere – drove over 9 hours from Cumberland House in eastern Saskatchewan to join in.

With participants sitting in a circle, the day began with opening remarks from facilitator Josée Méthot, who spoke about the need to work together across boundaries. She described how the RDRWA’s work with the “social lab” Project Blue Thumb  sparked the idea for the gathering, because lab participant Dr. Graham Strickert with the University of Saskatchewan stressed the need to work more with partners in Saskatchewan. As hosts for the day, Jeff Hanger (RDRWA) and Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) went next, welcoming people and acknowledging our presence on Treaty 6 lands. Lis reiterated how “rivers know no boundaries, but we work within boundaries”.  Our task for the day was therefore to help transcend these boundaries, to connect “upstreamers” with “downstreamers”.

Dr. Graham Stickert, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan later presented research showing that governance is the #1 water concern in Saskatchewan, followed by concerns related to water quality and quantity, land use change, drought and climate change. According to Dr. Strickert, “we need to connect people at the grassroots level,” in order to make meaningful strides on these linked issues.

In a passionate speech, Gary Carriere of the Saskatchewan River Delta Stewardship Committee told us about the Saskatchewan River Delta downstream, the largest inland freshwater delta in North America. Gary lamented declines in the populations of birds, fish, and other wildlife in the delta, owing to low water flows and insufficient sediment loads. Gary attributed these changes to man-made alterations of river flow: “Today we have it in our heart to respect the land, but we have interfered with the natural flow by putting structures along the rivers”. He remarked emotionally “Listen to the animals, where has the muskrat gone? I can see what happens with the animals there. God has given us dominion over the land and we are not doing it right”. Gary’s story highlighted how, within the span of a few decades, cumulative changes to the landscape were impacting the traditional way of life of First Nations, people living in the area for thousands of years.

The room was quiet, grappling with the importance of Gary’s words. Eventually a participant spoke up, “We can do better”.

The group later worked on an interactive exercise that asked upstream (Alberta) and downstream (Saskatchewan) participants to draw the watershed system in their area, highlighting concerns, key players, natural and human infrastructure, and more. Participants flexed their artistic skills, and later compared their drawings to reveal similarities and differences upstream and downstream.

Tea at the confluence

Following a brief lunch, it was time to go on a real adventure. Packed into several vehicles, our carpool convoy drove 30 minutes to the Estuary Ferry crossing, passing increasingly magnificent prairie countryside along the way. After a quick ferry ride, we were on our way to see firsthand the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers, about 3 miles from the border as the crow flies.

Conditions were near perfect as we arrived at the banks of the river, a mix of blue skies, golden grasses, and a warm wind. Eager to take in the majestic scenery, the group went for a walk through the native grasses, and hiked up to a lookout point to view “our” Red Deer River join up with “their” side of the South Saskatchewan River.


Meanwhile, trip organizers Josée and Graham were down at the river’s edge, filtering river water into a large stainless steel pot. It was time for a tea ceremony.

We held the tea ceremony to symbolize our connections with the river and with one another, regardless of any political boundaries. Water was taken from the river, filtered, boiled, and steeped with Saskatoon tea. A small team of engineers helped boil the water using camping stoves, realizing part-way through that we needed smaller pots to make the water boil faster. We had to laugh at the delay; this tea ceremony was a feat of engineering!


On top of a small hill, the group gathered in a circle as the tea was poured into beautiful porcelain teacups. Gary gave a blessing in Cree, and with the confluence as our backdrop, we drank in true outdoorsy style.

We closed the day with a sharing circle. Everyone shared their opinion of the day, what they learned, and what they would carry forward with them. Etched in the minds of participants were memories of the two rivers, Gary’s stories of the delta, new relationships, new knowledge, and new ideas. A municipal politician promised that her future decisions would always consider impacts to local and downstream waters. It was a powerful way to end the day.

Overall, our day at the confluence gave us new vigour to work on what really matters to make this a healthy, dynamic, and sustainable watershed. Jeff Hanger, brimming with enthusiasm, suggested we meet up again in a few years, to see how our actions have changed the system. All agreed! We packed the porcelain tea set back in the cardboard boxes and reluctantly headed home.

We had fallen in love with the prairies and our rivers all over again.




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The RDRWA would like to thank our event co-hosts, Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) and Dr. Graham Strickert (University of Saskatchewan), as well as RDRWA volunteers Tjarda and Rob Barratt for helping make this event possible. We also thank the Town of Oyen, Special Areas, the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability, and the Global Institute for Water Security for help with event funding. Thanks to Jean Bota for lending the tea cups. Finally, a special thank-you to our gracious and hospitable hosts in the Village of Empress, including Bev Farnden and Dan who cooked our delicious lunch.



In this post, Josée Méthot, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance’s (RDRWA) Planning Manager, reflects on her month-long residency at the Banff Centre where she explored social innovation in the water sector. 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

Working in watershed management can sometimes feel like being a hamster on a wheel, running faster and faster, but not necessarily getting anywhere. Everyday we are confronted with big and important issues that people care about deeply: floods, droughts, invasive species, controversial development patterns, and more. It can be overwhelming, and yet we keep going because we are fueled by a sense of hope and progress, that together we can make a positive difference – even a dent – in the systems that interact to produce these challenges.

Over the past 18 months, one of the reasons I wake up excited to go to work in the morning is Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues – a “social innovation lab” looking at water issues in Central Alberta. In essence, we are running an experiment to help us figure out just how we might get off the spinning hamster wheel to make a real difference for our water systems and our communities.  The lab has been a time and place where we – a group of around 30 people from different walks of life – get to ask big questions like “What are the root causes behind water quality challenges?” and “How can we better work together?”

Since launching, lab participants have been through many ups and downs, detours, small wins and breakthrough moments. We have been so inspired by all the people who have helped steward Alberta’s water resources historically, and by those actively working to address today’s issues and build a brighter future. We have learned a lot and made important progress, but we are also left with some lingering questions: What’s next? What will it really take to leave a positive water legacy for future generations? How can we do better?

To help answer these questions, I was recently fortunate enough to be able to retreat to the Banff Centre for a month for a residency in social innovation. From June 12th to July 9th, I was chosen to join 27 other peers from across Canada working to make positive changes in complex systems. Taken together, the cohort is working on some of the messiest challenges in the country: from water, to reconciliation, to economic diversification, and more.

[If “social innovation” is a new term for you, check out this quick video…]

The program – “Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency” is a 28-day intensive in the world of social innovation (aka. how to make change at the level of a system). Led by Dr. Frances Westley (Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience) and Dr. Julian Norris (Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary), we spent our time digging into ideas of systems thinking, complexity, resilience, and creativity.  The experience was full and I was in awe of the expertise and creativity of the faculty members and my new friends.

The time away helped me to unpack some of the assumptions behind Project Blue Thumb and to strategize about what else we might do to improve watershed management outcomes. It’s clear to me that we need to reach out to more people and learn directly from the range of experiences –government, industry, First Nations, scientists, and more. We need to take the time to really interact with the landscape – after all, nature is one of our best teachers.  We also need to think long term – how can we ensure that the lab is funded sustainably and supported by the right structures and relationships? I am also leaving with a new set of tools and exercises to use with groups as we grapple with the complexity of this work.

All in all, I came away from this residency with new understandings, new relationships, and a rejuvenated sense of purpose. I am really looking forward to putting some of the ideas into practice. To get started, I will be meeting with RDRWA staff to work through some key concepts and exercises and then with members of Project Blue Thumb.

Over the past 14 months, a diverse (and growing) team of individuals from across sectors has been gathering regularly to design, test, and implement solutions to water challenges in Central Alberta through Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues. In this post, Josée Méthot, the RDRWA’s Watershed Planning Manager, provides an update on the 5th lab workshop held this past May.

Project Blue Thumb is about connecting people who care about water and helping them to make a meaningful difference in the watershed. Since launching in spring 2015, the lab has brought together over 30 committed individuals from government, industry, the non-profit sector, and the public to explore solutions to shared water quality challenges.

From May 17 and 19th, lab team members met for the 5th time over 2.5 days for a “special edition” lab meeting that saw them embark on Learning Journeys in the Red Deer area, Edmonton, Calgary and Siksika First Nation.

Learning Journeys are about seeing the big picture, about engaging with “unusual suspects” to learn more about the world within which we operate. They help us to identify new possibilities and ways of thinking, and can expose some of our blind spots. While the Project Blue Thumb team is focused on finding ways to improve water quality in the Red Deer River watershed, there is much to learn from leaders in other organizations – their successes, failures, novel approaches to the work, key lessons learned, etc.

We set up 12 Learning Journeys across Alberta, each one hosted by an individual or organization doing inspirational and impactful work. Four teams of lab participants were then sent to one of four locations.

Learning Journey Host Organizations:

Red Deer Calgary Siksika First Nation & Calgary Edmonton

· Farm On Foundation

· Agri-Trend

· Central Alberta Poverty Reduction Alliance

·  AdFarm

·  Loose Moose Theatre Company

·  Calgary Regional Partnership

·  Siksika Source Water Protection Plan Committee

· Beakerhead

· Winsport

· Alberta Co-Lab

· Situ Strategy

·  Navigator


We met with Olympic coaches to learn about how to create high-performing teams (hint: find a training rhythm) and with a leading advertising firm to learn about how to make messaging that sticks (free beer helps). We talked about the future of technology in farming (precision agriculture), and also about how to engage young farmers (online please). We met with leading science communicators, land use planners, political strategists, and systems thinkers – all of whom helped spark new ideas for our work in watershed management.

Personally, I was pleased to learn about how Siksika First Nation is leading the way on source water protection planning. Extending a warm welcome, their Source Water Protection Planning committee highlighted how important it is to bring different people – treatment plant operators, land managers, health workers, etc. – together when dealing with water issues and to prioritize and sequence key management actions.

I’m also told that several of our more courageous lab members tried improv comedy at Loose Moose Theatre – home of members of the Kids in the Hall. Results were mixed and wonderfully awkward. It seems our newest lab team members – from ATCO Electric, Access Prosperity, the Town of Olds, Legacy Land Trust, and Alberta Agriculture & Forestry – were introduced head first into the lab through these learning journeys. Their voices are a great addition to the team.

The meeting also included other activities to advance the lab’s work. The Farm On Foundation team joined us to facilitate an exercise about how to reach an audience through targeted messaging. This was an eye opener for many of us as we began to see where our messaging tends to fall short. Hopefully some of the lessons learned from this session will influence future communications.

All of this exploration made the lab team hungry for some action. The final day of the meeting was spent continuing to work on “prototype” initiatives aimed at maintaining and improving water quality. Some teams worked on existing prototypes (and showed some amazing progress), while others formed new teams to work on new ideas. From policy, to technology in industry, to water literacy, and beyond: the lab team is busy cooking up many interesting prototypes. Importantly, we finally formed a communications team to better share the lab’s work. We now have a website (www.projectbluethumb.com), a Twitter account (@BlueThumbLab; #ProjectBlueThumb), and will be releasing regular blogs in the future. Stay tuned for a photo book from the Learning Journeys and updates about the specific lab prototypes.

All in all, we are very thankful for the people who took the time to meet with the Project Blue Thumb team. We asked some hard (and sometimes personal) questions and everyone was so open to helping the lab team. It is often said but bears repeating in this context: water is a great unifier. We are already looking forward to the next lab meeting in Fall 2016.



Over the last 13 months, 25 stakeholders representing industry, government and civil society have been participating in Project Blue Thumb – a social innovation lab aimed at maintaining and improving water quality in the Red Deer River Watershed. In this series of posts, team members Milana Simikian and Graham Strickert provide insight into their experience with the lab over the last year.

Just as water doesn’t linger in the same watershed for long, the benefits of Project Blue Thumb extend far beyond the Red Deer River.

Project Blue Thumb connects professionals from across Alberta and beyond to develop new strategies for watershed management, using the Red Deer River watershed as the laboratory.

Through new approaches for engagement, innovative ideas to improve water quality, and strengthened relationships between academics, local and provincial government staff, and business and community members, Project Blue Thumb is tackling a complex and shared problem.

Improved connections

Ideas and prototypes pitched at Project Blue Thumb are encouraged to directly relate to the participants’ daytime jobs. This not only justifies the value to lab sessions, but it also creates meaningful opportunities to practice what is learned.

Milana Simikian works for Ducks Unlimited Canada as a policy analyst, where she connects with municipalities and engages with community members with issues around wetland conservation.

“Currently, many municipal governments lack the scope and tools they need to effectively conserve wetlands and improve water quality,” says Simikian.

One initiative within Project Blue Thumb that Simikian is involved with is Project AWESOME (a watershed environmental system of municipal excellence). By building tools to support municipalities sort through the complexities of wetland and watershed management, Project AWESOME directly connects with Simikian’s work at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Simikian’s networks through Ducks Unlimited Canada have been increasingly more valuable for Project AWESOME, and the connections she has made through Project Blue Thumb are useful for her day-to-day job.

“I am glad to help various stakeholder groups connect and collaborate on common issues and similar projects.”

Graham Strickert, a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan, says the biggest value from Project Blue Thumb has been the connections with professionals from a variety of watersheds.

“We are seeing the benefits of the interactions between this very diverse group of people,” he says.

“The biggest benefit that has come out of it so far is connecting people who were not connected before. Those benefits are tangible.”

Improved watershed problem solving

Project Blue Thumb focuses on surface and groundwater quality within the Red Deer River watershed, and the lab team is learning lessons and strategies that can be applied to watersheds around the country.

“The process to identify systematically what people’s concerns are, to come up with a range of solutions to address those concerns, and then to test those solutions against a number of criteria is excellent,” says Strickert.

“I am completely the converted that believing that this process is valuable.”

Since watersheds cross geographical and jurisdictional boundaries, water quality issues are not isolated. Solutions, too, need to cross boundaries.

“It would be great to see it happening in all the watersheds,” says Strickert.

“The big challenge with watershed planning is it is just that – watershed planning is hard and implementing watershed plans is even harder.”

Improved engagement

Participants of Project Blue Thumb are encouraged to contribute. The sessions are deliberately facilitated by Reos Partners to bring out new ideas while reviewing old assumptions.

“It has a very deliberate facilitation approach that is unlike any other group facilitation that I have ever seen,” says Simikian, who has attended every Project Blue Thumb session so far.

“It forces you to think differently, which is not something you would encounter in a regular facilitated stakeholder engagement meeting.”

With her work at Ducks Unlimited Canada, Simikian has attended numerous stakeholder meetings around the province. Through Project Blue Thumb, she has learned different facilitation techniques that can be applied at engagement sessions related to her day-to-day work.

“Ever since the social lab, I became more acute to old thinking patterns that make people jump to the same old conclusions and assumptions in problem solving,” she says.

“If social lab thinking and facilitation processes were applied elsewhere, we would be able to come up with much better solutions and much better working relationships.”