David Schindler is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology emeritus at the University of Alberta and one of the world's leading freshwater ecologists.
Jeffrey Wells, Ph.D., is an ecologist and visiting fellow of Cornell University whose work has focused on boreal conservation issues for the past decade.
Even for most Canadians, let alone the rest of the world, the Northwest Territories is more a place of grand imagination than of reality. As the stories go, everything is bigger, colder, harder and windier in the Territories. But the cold, hard truth is that the water resources of the Northwest Territories make it one of the most important places in the world.
The Northwest Territories is a land blessed with water. Within its borders lie two of the world's largest lakes, Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. The former is one of the deepest in the world, the latter perhaps the most pristine large lake remaining. It is also home to the Mackenzie River, which drains 20 per cent of Canada's land mass. The Mackenzie's headwaters begin in British Columbia as the Peace River and in Alberta as the Athabasca River, which meet to become the Slave River.
Not only is it the longest river in Canada – at 1,802 kilometres – it still has unimpeded access for fish migrations to and from the sea. Fresh water from the Mackenzie discharges into the Beaufort Sea and provides the life blood for the marine productivity that makes the area one of the richest in Arctic biodiversity – from fish to whales to walruses and polar bears. It also drives Arctic Ocean currents that influence global ocean currents and continental weather patterns. The Territories also encompass an incredible 25 million hectares of wetlands that, together with its tens of millions of hectares of other natural habitats, support hundreds of millions of birds of more than 200 species.
The indigenous people of the Northwest Territories have never needed anyone to tell them that the water and wetlands there are special – even sacred. They have relied on the waters and wetlands for millennia. Water is woven into the life of indigenous communities, a kind of stewardship that should be a model for governments and industries when they take actions that will affect this precious resource.
Of course, the people, communities and territorial and indigenous governments of the Northwest Territories don't control what happens up river. More than 30 per cent of the Mackenzie watershed lies upstream of the Northwest Territories, in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. It is no secret that large-scale oil and gas, hydro, forestry, mining and agricultural development have affected vast portions of these upstream provinces.
That is why all Mackenzie River Basin jurisdictions came together in 1997 and signed a joint agreement to work together to manage the water resources.
It took 18 years, but the next phase of the agreement was moved forward this spring when the governments of the Northwest Territories and Alberta quietly signed a transboundary water agreement that has clear thresholds for water quality and quantity that each must meet; that, if breached, trigger direct actions and set in motion further work to ensure the problems are fixed.
That is a major step forward and one that deserves enormous praise and support.
Unfortunately, it is not enough by itself to ensure that the Northwest Territories' globally important water resources continue to be the lifeblood of the planet. We need all of the Mackenzie River Basin jurisdictions – Northwest Territories, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Yukon – to have agreements such as this one. They need to be finalized quickly to ensure the waters in the entire basin are protected.
And the Northwest Territories needs to do more to take up the challenge itself – it has had responsibility for land and water since devolution in 2014 – to develop a comprehensive regulatory framework that ensures that future plans for industrial development in the territory do not lead to the kinds of problems we see already in developed provinces to the south.
Many indigenous peoples of the north talk about water as the beating heart of their lands. It is time we all consider our precious waters and wetlands that way and push to ensure that the heartbeat will be heard for generations to come.