Protecting the Basin
The waters of the Mackenzie River Basin are a precious resource and they present unique challenges to water resource managers. The Mackenzie River Basin has cultural, political, geographic and environmental characteristics which are unique and significant by world standards. The basin is huge at 1.8 million square kilometres, over one fifth the area of Canada, but has only a small population of less than half a million people. Yet everyone in some way depends on the rivers, lakes, deltas and waterways for their livelihood and way of life. The population is very diverse in lifestyle and heritage, with members of the various Indigenous peoples speaking eleven different languages.
The basin is divided roughly in half by the sixtieth parallel, yet close to 88 per cent of the population lives in twelve major communities in British Columbia and Alberta. Most people make their living in the forestry, oil and gas, agriculture and hydroelectric power generation industries which use water in their operating processes. Although this area has a predominately modern industrial economy, some Indigenous people still follow a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle.
By contrast, most residents north of 60 and in the Saskatchewan portion of the Basin are Indigenous. Many live a primarily traditional lifestyle involving hunting, fishing, trapping and the use of waterways for transportation. There are eight larger and 21 smaller communities where these people live on a full or part-time basis. These people depend on a relatively pristine quality and quantity of water in order to be able to continue to drink the water and eat the fish as part of their livelihood and lifestyle. The way water is used, and how that use affects the water resource, varies considerably between the northern and southern areas.
The variety of political jurisdictions with legislated authority over water management is also unique. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon and the Northwest Territories have the majority of legislative authority over water management within their respective boundaries. The federal government also has responsibilities in all parts of the basin under the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act. In addition, some groups of Indigenous people who live in the Basin have settled, or are negotiating land claims and/or self-government agreements which may set out authority and management roles with respect to water and rights to water.
Because the Basin contains several large rivers that flow across political boundaries, management actions taken in one jurisdiction may affect the water resources in one or more neighbouring jurisdictions downstream. Sound water management in the Basin requires the cooperation of all jurisdictions to coordinate their respective activities.
The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement requires the Water Resources within the Mackenzie River Basin to be managed in a manner consistent with the maintenance of the Ecological Integrity of the Aquatic Ecosystem, and for Water Resource Use be managed in a sustainable manner for present and future generations.
Surface water quality is generally good enough for it to be treated and used as a source of drinking water. Very little is known about groundwater in the Basin, however, some Basin residents rely on groundwater for domestic and industrial uses. Waters of the Basin are generally capable of supporting all of the Basin's native aquatic plants and animals. Many Basin residents consume local fish and waterfowl as part of their daily diet. Since the 1980s, the quality of treated effluents discharged from industries and communities within the Basin has greatly improved. Concerns remain including: nutrient loadings from pulp mills, oil sands tailings, abandoned uranium mines around Lake Athabasca, Yellowknife's underground arsenic storage sites and other abandoned metal mines in the Northwest Territories. Airborne pollutants including mercury and PCBs from far away are also a threat to the quality of water and country foods. It is necessary to understand these threats and to respond to them effectively.
The biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems in the Basin appears generally good. However, as the demands to use water increase, so will the need for water quality and quantity guidelines designed to protect diverse, well-functioning aquatic ecosystems. Traditional and scientific knowledge assessments agree that changes are occurring in the ecological health of the basin's three great river deltas; the Peace-Athabasca; the Slave; and the Mackenzie. Impacts from altered flow regimes, contaminants and climate change are among the factors needing further attention.
Developing a Watershed Approach
A watershed approach to river basin planning and management links land use practices with the health of aquatic ecosystems. Every jurisdiction is moving in this direction and the Board will encourage all partners, industries and Basin residents to support this integrated approach.