Understanding the Basin

The size and complexity of the Mackenzie River Basin is impressive. The Mackenzie River system flows 4,241 kilometres from the Columbia Ice-field in Jasper National Park and the deep snowfields of the upper Peace River in northeastern British Columbia to its mouth on the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean. The Mackenzie River Basin covers about 1.8 million square kilometres or about 20% of the landmass of Canada. Five jurisdictions share the Basin, each with its own legal and regulatory framework.

The Mackenzie River Basin can be sub-divided into six major subbasins, each with its own major river or lake. The six sub-basins are the Athabasca, the Peace, the Liard, the Peel, the Great Slave, and the Mackenzie-Great Bear.

The Basin includes nine lakes over 1,000 square kilometres in area. The basin also includes three large deltas: the Peace- Athabasca Delta (which has been designated as a Wetland of International Significance), the Slave River Delta, and the Mackenzie Delta.

Permafrost underlies about 75% of the basin. Pingos and patterned ground features associated with continuous permafrost are found in the north, while agriculture and forestry are important economic activities in the southern parts of the basin.

Vegetation changes from boreal forest in the south to alpine in the mountains and arctic tundra in the north and east. The basin extends from the Mackenzie and Rocky Mountains in the west, through the Interior Plains to the Canadian Shield in the east.

This range of conditions, in combination with the range of climatic conditions, results in eight of the fifteen major terrestrial ecozones of Canada being represented within the basin.

There are forty-four community water systems with 1,000 or more customers in the Mackenzie River Basin. More than 700 other small water systems serve small communities and rural populations. People use water and discharge wastes for a variety of industrial activities in the Mackenzie River Basin. The most important industries are agriculture, fossil energy, forest products, hydroelectricity and mineral extraction.

There are eleven Indigenous languages spoken within the basin. The traditional economy, which depends on healthy ecosystems, remains an important part of these people's lives and livelihoods.

The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement directs the MRBB to report on the State of the Aquatic Ecosystem every five years. The State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Report brings together the available information within the Mackenzie River Basin to help the Board understand and track conditions in the Basin.

Improving Knowledge

Programs to monitor contaminants, assess health risks, and distribute consumption advisories for country foods vary widely across the Basin. Information about the safety of these foods is critical to people who consume them as part of their cultural lifestyle.

Different jurisdictions report on water quality in different ways, making it difficult to describe water quality conditions across the Basin in a consistent fashion. Improved monitoring programs and compatible data systems are needed to support better water management decisions throughout the Basin.

Understanding the hydrology of the Mackenzie River System forms the foundation of understanding all other aspects of the Basin. Developing this understanding is a priority.

Including Traditional Knowledge

A substantial amount of information about the state of the Mackenzie River Basin in the historic past and the observed changes in the recent past is known by the people who have lived in the basin for generations.

The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement (Part D Section 2C) directs the MRBB to consider the needs and concerns of Indigenous people through the provision of culturally appropriate communication and the incorporation of their traditional knowledge and values.

Traditional knowledge (TK) is based on the understanding that:

  • the land is a powerful teacher;
  • TK encompasses the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of life;
  • TK complements and enhances Western scientific information; and
  • scientists and TK holders must work in partnership to gain a more thorough understanding of the natural environment.

The use of traditional knowledge in decision-making provides a long term holistic perspective. It is important to learn how to use this traditional knowledge to assist in making today's water management decisions.

The MRBB wants to find better ways to use traditional knowledge for decision making and for reconciling traditional knowledge with the views of the scientific community.