Originating high on the Columbia Icefield astride the Alberta/B.C. boundary and flowing a distance of some 1,800 kilometres, the Mackenzie is Canada's longest river.
Covering 20 per cent of Canada's landmass, it pours 14,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools into the Arctic Ocean every hour, discharging 100 million tons of sediment every year. The annual snow and ice cover in the northern Mackenzie basin creates a refrigerator-like cooling effect that plays a vital role in weather and climate patterns not just in Canada, but throughout the northern hemisphere.
Extending 1.8 million square kilometres, the Mackenzie's massive basin includes three major lakes, the Slave, Great Bear and the Athabasca, plus a web of significant rivers including the Peace, Athabasca, Liard, Hay, Peel, South Nahanni and Slave. The Mackenzie Delta alone contains 45,000 lakes.
As such, the Mackenzie provides immeasurably rich habitat for countless species of wildlife and birds that migrate as far south as South America, plus vast tracts of forest, peatlands, wetlands and tundra, all of which comprise a vital filter system that purifies the freshwater the river carries.
The Mackenzie also sustains Alberta's oil sands, northern mineral development and substantial barge traffic. Its tundra and permafrost store massive amounts of carbon which helps to regulate Earth's climate and take up some industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.
Concern over how this important watershed is managed into the future prompted an international panel of experts on aboriginal law, hydrology, biology, resource economics, political science and trans-boundary watershed issues to convene a special panel in Vancouver earlier this month (Sept. 5 - 7).
The Rosenberg Forum, the preeminent think-tank for global water-related issues, convened a panel to identify the legal and scientific principles relevant to establishing a coordinated basin-wide approach to management of the Mackenzie. Its summary report, due in January, will outline clear and precise guidelines for the river system, including setting objectives for surface and groundwater quality and quantity, emergency notification requirements and information exchange protocols.
With the Mackenzie basin's geographic situation placing it under six government jurisdictions — Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories (NWT) and Canada's federal government — that jurisdictional fragmentation threatens not just the health of the region's ecosystem, but also the people who depend on the river system for their food, drink, travel, economic growth, culture and spirituality.
Meanwhile, developments people rely on, such as B.C'.s W.A.C. Bennett Dam in its northern Peace region also threaten that health, as do declining river flows caused by the combination of oil sands development and numerous other factors including climate change.
"All of these are of great concern to a population downstream of the oil sands that still relies on the Mackenzie and its tributaries for water and for most of its protein," said panellist David Schindler, an ecologist with the University of Alberta.
While a 2009 report estimated the market value of economic activities in 2005 for the Mackenzie watershed at $41.9 billion, the same research quoted a non-market value of ecosystem goods and services provided by nature such as carbon storage and water filtration at nearly $571 billion per year.
Acknowledging that changes are already occurring, Schindler pointed out the dearth of scientific knowledge about the Mackenzie is as expansive as the river basin itself.
"The Mackenzie is the only huge river flowing to the Arctic in North America but we are almost without baseline data now," Schindler said. "The monitoring in [Alberta's] oil sands has been so poor that we don't even know what background conditions were. There has been no real analyses of what the consequences are of losing fish habitat, contaminating fish, removing more water, or worst of all, a major tailings pond dike breach, especially in winter when there is no way of removing oil. As a result, there is no meaningful way to plan for sustainable development."
With an aim to designing a purposeful and binding management plan, Rosenberg panellists answered questions of how science, aboriginal knowledge, holistically-oriented adaptive management and existing governance structures should all be incorporated.
The crafting of a basin-wide agreement, said Canmore-based water policy analyst Bob Sandford, is Canada's opportunity to emerge from its historical approach of allowing provinces and territories free reign over fragments of larger freshwater systems.
"This is an opportunity to show the world how to employ science and enlightened legal principles to break out of the prisons of treaties that no longer respond to the realities that are emerging as the global hydrological cycle responds to a rapidly warming atmosphere," Sandford said.
While all six governments were invited to participate in the forum, all but the NWT declined, citing scheduling conflicts and opting to await the final report. Northwest Territories Premier, Bob McLeod and Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Michael Miltenberger, spoke before the panel about the NWT's approach to collaborative management of its natural resources.
A Rosenberg regional forum hosted in Yellowknife in 2009 was instrumental in the territory implementing its water stewardship strategy in 2011. Since then, NWT and Alberta have been negotiating the parameters of a coordinated watershed agreement.
A key building block came when the NWT legislature passed a resolution declaring water as a fundamental human right in 2006 — the only province or territory to do so.
"That's a key element that's been driving us," Miltenberger said. "We see this as an urgent priority. We've had to do things in proper sequence, but we're running behind the curve."
Meanwhile, significant development upstream on the Mackenzie has proliferated since the Mackenzie Master Agreement was signed in 1997. In Miltenberger's home of Fort Smith, Parks Canada, regional government and community groups are working to establish crucial baseline information.
"We've had complaints of fish with tumours, of fish with skin that's not right and other deformities and other anecdotal evidence," Miltenberger said. "But that concern exists all the way up to the Arctic. The manifestation of the effects of climate change that scientists have been predicting are now being seen in the North — changes in the weather, changes in the seasons, extended fire seasons, soil erosion, changes in permafrost, changes in the river flows due to the melting of the glaciers are all combining to raise everyone's anxiety."
A transboundary agreement, said panellist John Pomeroy, Canmore-based head of hydrology with the University of Saskatchewan, is generally seen as beneficial if it preserves important aspects of river flow and water quality across jurisdictions while still permitting upstream jurisdictions to make some reasonable use of water that arises in their territory.
"Water quality standards in the north need to be especially stringent because the cold water food chain can concentrate contaminants, is slow to break down excessive nutrients and because this water eventually ends up in the Mackenzie Delta and Arctic Ocean which are incredibly productive ecosystems of global importance," he said.
For panelist Gord Christie, a University of B.C. professor of aboriginal law originally from Inuvik, the panel offered a new perspective on his home region, where the Inuit, the Inuvialut and Dene still make up a significant part of population living off the land.
"Being from the mouth of the river, I find it interesting to think of the Mackenzie as a basin, as a single entity, the way it should be," Christie said. "I'm hopeful that the jurisdictional bodies involved come together and manage it that way."
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