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Degredation of Mackenzie River basin has global impact: report

One of the Earth's largest remaining intact ecosystems, it covers the nearly 20 per cent of Canada and includes Alberta's oilsands and British Columbia's hydro projects

Toronto—Canada’s vast Mackenzie River basin is a vital global resource that is under threat from development, climate change, inadequate science and piecemeal management, concludes a report from a U.S.-based environmental think-tank.

The Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy at the University of California says control over the enormous area should come under one agency instead of the seven governments and the many aboriginal bands that currently oversee their own bits and pieces of it.

“There really is an urgency,” said Henry Vaux, the report’s lead author. “The big concern is that the evolution of climate change and its impacts on the basin will make it less resilient to the sorts of pressures that will be put on by expanding economic development.”

The basin, one of the Earth’s largest remaining intact ecosystems, covers the nearly 20 per cent of Canada drained by the Mackenzie River. It includes Alberta’s oilsands and British Columbia’s hydro projects as well as the hunting and trapping grounds of thousands of Dene and Inuvialuit all the way up to the Beaufort Sea.

The foundation was asked to consider the basin by Toronto’s Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. The report’s authors are from California, Alberta, British Columbia, Colorado, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Scotland and include scientists such as David Schindler, who has been studying northern rivers since the 1970s.

The report says oilsands development has destroyed, at least temporarily, thousands of hectares of wetlands and created small but growing levels of toxins in rivers. Wildlife species such as woodland caribou are threatened with local extinction as their habitat is fragmented.

Industrial water use from the Athabasca River during low flow periods remains controversial. Lake-sized tailings ponds pose leakage risks. Massive dams in British Columbia have disrupted river flows, drying out large river deltas.

As the oilsands expand and energy and mineral exploration continues in the Northwest Territories—and the removal of federal protections from basin rivers—the region that experiences some of the fastest rates of climate change on Earth will see an increase in threatened water flows and melting permafrost that underlies much of the landscape.

The whole world has a stake in what happens next, said Vaux.

“Because of the place in the world where the Mackenzie is, it punches above its weight.”

The basin provides breeding habitat for more than 400 bird species that migrate as far as Argentina. Its biodiversity reserves are comparable to those of Africa’s Serengeti.

And it exercises a powerful impact on climate through its unbroken snow cover and influence on Arctic ocean currents.

“It’s more important than a comparably sized river (elsewhere), simply because it is north-flowing, and because it harbours landscapes and climates which have an important refrigerating effect,” Vaux said. “The climate of the northern hemisphere will be importantly influenced by that refrigerating effect.”

Despite that, scientific understanding of the Mackenzie basin remains sketchy, Vaux said.

“I would characterize (our knowledge) as not good and badly in need of improvement. The Mackenzie has been relatively less well-studied than other river basins of the world.

“The top priority we need is a robust, long-term monitoring and archiving program.”

The report concludes the basin should be managed by one entity. Responsibility is now divided between the federal government, three provinces, three territories and at least a dozen aboriginal bands.

“Business as usual … threatens the integrity of the basin and its capacity to supply resources and environmental services,” the report concludes. “There is a clear need for the basin to be managed in an effective and integrated fashion if the environmental services and other resources that it includes and provides are to be sustained and protected.”

Vaux warned that bilateral agreements such as the one being negotiated between Alberta and the Northwest Territories aren’t enough.

The report suggests that the Mackenzie River Basin Board, which has existed since 1997, be reinvigorated and strengthened to manage the basin holistically.

“One of the points that we made dwelt on the importance of the residents of the basin, as well as the residents of Canada, being willing to assume stewardship for the Mackenzie basin because of its global importance,” Vaux said.

“A willingness to do that is going to have to be cultivated with some strong leadership.”

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