After pressing pause on water monitoring operations at four sites in the Mackenzie River Basin, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is resuming normal monitoring operations.
In March, the federal department temporarily suspended routine long-term water quality monitoring, along with other “non-critical services,” in response to the pandemic, ECCC spokesperson Chelsea Steacy said.
She said that the suspension of monitoring activities “for a period of time” does not prevent ECCC from fulfilling its objective of “indicating water quality status over time.”
Of the four sites in question, two are located in the NWT by Hay River and on the Slave River. Two are in Alberta at Fitzgerald point on the Slave River, and Peace Point on the Peace River. All are downstream of the Fort McMurray oil sands.
While the federal government suspended monitoring activities, the GNWT took over collecting samples at the water sites in August “to help reduce the gap,” said Darren Campbell, spokesperson with the GNWT’s Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). This is in addition to the routine water quality monitoring program the GNWT employs independent from federal activities.
“Given that water is critical to the way of life for the people of the Northwest Territories, and the importance of the water quality data for understanding and management purposes, the resumption of monitoring at ECCC’s long-term monitoring sites is important to detect change and trends over time,” Campbell said.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said that the issue of water safety, especially flowing from the oil sands, has been a concern for as long as he has been Chief.
In a tele-press conference Yakeleya told media that he is “befuddled as to why an essential service, such as monitoring the quality of the water coming from the oil sands production fields, was suspended.”
He said that water is essential for drinking, for fish, for the animals, and “for the sake of all people in the Northwest Territories.”
“We’re happy again to be a part of the advocacy and we want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
The resumed water monitoring comes as water levels in Great Slave Lake and across the Mackenzie River Basin have been among the highest on record.
Steacy said the unusually wet spring and summer have caused a large amount of natural runoff in the Slave and Hay rivers, “which in turn have brought record amount of suspended sediments from natural erosion into Great Slave Lake.”
Still, she says scientists with ECCC, the GNWT, and the government of AB agree “water quality conditions are not outside the expected patterns for extreme high-water events in this region.”
In a press release issued earlier this week, the GNWT said that water levels are thought mostly to be a result of higher than normal precipitation and snow-melt though ENR announced last week that they are working to “better understand the contributions of upstream watershed,” following prolonged water spills from the W.A.C Bennett and Peace Canyon dams into the Peace River.
Yakeleya said that they were not given any notice of the suspension of the water monitoring activities when they first occurred.
“We had to find out, we had to do our research to see if there were water monitoring stations,” he said. “The engagement of First Nations in the Northwest Territories is the missing link.”
When the GNWT took over monitoring the federal water sites in early August, the GNWT and Dene Nation asked for a seat on the Oil Sands Monitoring Program’s oversight committee.
Campbell said that the GNWT “continues to engage,” the Government of Canada and of Alberta on its interest in being granted a seat.
“A seat on this committee will ensure NWT interests are considered when decisions are made about the Oil Sands Monitoring Program,” he said.
Yakeleya said he’s pushing for “an NWT council of leaders” to bring together Northern decision makers in order to “speak with one voice,” to represent Northerners’ needs.
He said the GNWT is in the preliminary stages of seeking input from Indigenous leaders and beginning the “difficult process” of making that happen.
He said there needs to be more communication between leaders, both of the North and around the country, “otherwise, we will again sit by in the bleachers and watch things go.”