What are springs?
A spring occurs where an aquifer is filled to the point where groundwater overflows onto the land surface and creates visible flow. They occur at the intersection of the land and the atmosphere (quite literally a “groundwater outcrop”), or the land and water when the source is covered by a lake, river, or ocean. They are frequently seen on cliff faces along road cuts, hillsides, or riverbanks.
How they are formed?
Groundwater will flow through any type of rock or sediment, but the smaller the grain size, the longer it takes for water to move through the rock. Coarse-grained rocks and sediments such as sand and gravel conduct flow faster and at greater rates than fine-grained materials such as shales and clay. These coarser-grained layers are generally considered to be aquifers and are the source of most springs. “Fracture springs” occur where groundwater is emitted through a concentrated location, such as from joints, cleavage, faults, bedding planes, or other breaks in the consolidated rock. These types of springs are very common in Alberta, and an excellent example of a fracture spring is the spring supporting the Raven Fish Hatchery.
Springs at Raven Fish Rearing Station
Raven Fish Rearing Pond
Some rock, such as limestone or dolostone, can become riddled with fissures and voids over time and are then capable of transmitting large volumes of water. Hydrogeologists call these features “karst springs.” The most popular example of karst springs in Alberta is the Maligne Canyon Springs in Jasper National Park. Karst springs also occur in northeastern Alberta.
“Contact springs” occur at the contact of two layers of sharply contrasting permeability, such as surficial sediments or sandstone resting on shales. These are also very common throughout Alberta, examples of which may be seen along road cuts through bedrock, or along river valleys such as the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton. “Seepage springs,” which are generally a type of contact spring, occur when groundwater is not visibly flowing from a specific orifice but instead is diffuse and shows itself as a wet area that can be either small or very large. These usually occur in areas of unconsolidated sediments such as sand, gravel, or loose soil and are very common throughout Alberta.
“Thermal springs” have elevated temperature as a result of groundwater moving through rock that has either been heated through volcanism or the earth’s natural geothermal gradient. In geologically active areas, deep aquifers may be penetrated by fractures that bring groundwater to the surface, carrying heat and minerals with it. This is the case for two examples of thermal springs in Alberta—namely, Miette Hot Springs near Jasper and Banff’s Cave and Basin Hot Springs. Alberta does not have thermal springs created by volcanism.
Miette Hot Springs
Springs have traditionally been classified using the Meinzer Classification, which is based on an order of magnitude of discharge. Almost all springs have discharge rates that vary over time, so the classification can change depending on when it was observed. The table and map below shows the Meinzer Classifications and location of some popular Alberta springs
|Meinzer Classification||Flow Volume||Spring Name||Flow Volume
(based on at least one published measurement)
|I||>10 kL/s||Maligne Canyon Springs, Jasper National Park||37 kL/s|
|II||1–10 kL/s||Big Springs east of Mt. Castleguard||9.8 kL/s|
|III||100–1000 L/s||Stauffer Creek Springs southeast of Rocky Mountain House||288 L/s|
|IV||10–100 L/s||Big Hill Springs near Airdrie||84 L/s|
|V||1–10 L/s||Miette Hot Springs near Jasper||7.6 L/s|
|VI||0.1–1 L/s||La Saline Springs North East of Fort McMurray||0.9 L/s|
|VII||0.01–0.1 L/s||Spring in North Saskatchewan river valley, Edmonton approx. 102 avenue and 87 street||0.09 L/s|
Big Hill Springs
La Saline spring
Generally speaking, classifying springs based solely on discharge, which can fluctuate widely, is not very useful. Meinzer therefore proposed measuring variability over many years. More recently, other authors have introduced the concept of “spheres of discharge,” which goes well beyond hydrogeology and geomorphology to include groundwater-dependent ecosystems and looks at the physical, biological, and cultural characteristics of the spring.
Water quality of springs
The water quality of springs is entirely dependent on the water quality of the aquifer from which they are sourced. As groundwater moves through an aquifer, it picks up dissolved minerals in the rock. The longer the flow path of the water before it emerges as a spring, the higher the total dissolved solids (TDS), which is a measurement of minerals dissolved in the water. Springs that are directly influenced by precipitation have a fairly short flow path and tend to have low TDS. Springs that are sourced from deeper aquifers generally have longer flow paths and higher TDS. This is why thermal springs that are sourced from deeply buried aquifers tend to be mineralized. Many springs in northeastern Alberta also have very high TDS (as much as 300 000 mg/L) because the flow path of the groundwater through the aquifer is very long. See the following table for a comparison of TDS in some of the springs in Alberta.
|Spring Name||TDS (mg/L)|
|Columbia Glacier Spring||99|
|Raven Fish Rearing Station Spring||301|
|Big Hill Springs||307|
|Banff Upper Hot Spring||940|
|Spring in park North West of Groat Bridge, Edmonton||1 334|
|Miette Hot Springs||1 774|
|Spring along the Clearwater River east of Fort McMurray||20 452|
|La Saline Springs North East of Fort McMurray||71 140|
|Spring in Wood Buffalo National Park||
Because of the chemical makeup of springs, we frequently see mineral deposits at the discharge site. These deposits can be significant over time, and in some cases they can change the landscape surrounding the discharge channel. An excellent example of this are the tufa deposits below Big Hill Springs near Airdrie, Alberta, where large dam-like structures have altered the course of the stream flow. Once the flow channel is altered, the tufa deposit buildup begins again. Many other springs have deposits of marl, iron, sulphur, or various other salts that may affect the stream channel at the discharge site.
Big Hill Springs Tufa dam
AGS staff have been collecting and reporting on springs in Alberta for decades. Recently, a project to compile springs information from several published and unpublished sources was initiated. The first phases of the springs compilation work focused on compiling springs data into a database and creating GIS layers. During the compilation work, we discovered discrepancies between the different datasets. For instance, when we looked at a map of spring locations, there were multiple occurrences of a given spring because its location had been reported differently in the various data sources available. We conducted fieldwork to physically check some of these discrepancies, but it is not feasible to check all of them due to the large number of springs in the province. Therefore, as springs are encountered during fieldwork conducted for other purposes, they are located with a GPS, photographed, and, if possible, measured for flow volume and field parameters such as temperature, pH, and electrical conductivity. This data is entered into our springs database and published when significant information is added. The most recent publication of this database was in 2014.
More detailed studies on springs are occasionally conducted; the most recent was a project to test the use of remote sensing technology to find springs. Satellite based data such as Landsat7 band 6 and SPOT5 multispectral data, although economically feasible, only proved useful to locate fairly large spring-fed wetlands on the order of hundreds of metres in size. LiDAR data, with its higher resolution, provided more promising results, identifying springs tens of metres across. Airborne thermal data, although expensive, was determined to be useful in searching for springs which are only metres in diameter. Because springs can vary in size from a trickle of water on an outcrop to discharge areas hundreds of metres, if not kilometres, in size, using a remote sensing technology which is appropriate and comparable to the target spring is vital. Overlaying these technologies can be similar to "zooming in" on areas of possible springs locations. Using remote sensing technologies in concert with more traditional methods, such as water table and surficial geology mapping in a GIS-based platform, significantly reduced the potential search area. An AGS report on testing the use of remote sensing to find springs in Alberta will be released in 2016.
How can you contribute?
We welcome Albertans to share with us their knowledge of spring locations by contacting us. If you know of spring locations on your property or near you, please e-mail us the following information:
- spring location (GPS co-ordinates if possible, or township and range);
- photograph of the spring; and
- information about the spring's behaviour.
We will use that information as we refine our inventory of springs. Your contact information will not be shared with other organizations.