Nobody has to remind Robert McLeod, the premier of the Northwest Territories, that when it comes to water all problems flow downhill.
And with two of Canada's most massive energy projects – Alberta's oil sands and British Columbia's Peace River hydro-power developments – both lying upstream, Mr. McLeod says he has good reason to be concerned.
The former public servant, who was elected premier last year, is attending an international water policy conference in Vancouver this week, where he is hoping to convince the NWT's neighbours of the pressing need to finalize a bilateral agreement to manage the Mackenzie River Basin, a massive watershed that covers an area the size of France.
"What people really want to know is can they drink the water, eat the fish … and what we're presenting here is the fact that we are downstream of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon," Mr. McLeod said.
"I think historically if you look at the major rivers of the world, development always started downstream and moved upstream. The Mackenzie River Basin is an anomaly in that development started upstream and is working its way downstream, so we have to deal with it on a different basis," he said.
Mr. McLeod, who made headlines recently with a proposal to route the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline through the NWT if it fails to get approval in B.C., said he embraces development – but only if it is sustainable and doesn't do unacceptable damage to the environment or native cultures.
With pollutants flowing downstream from the oil sands on the Athabasca River, and a major new dam proposed at Site C on the Peace River, Mr. McLeod said there is some urgency to his message that a bilateral agreement is needed with all upstream jurisdictions if the Mackenzie is to be protected.
As a boy growing up in the small native community of Fort Providence, he saw his favourite fishing and swimming holes disappear when the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was built in 1968 on B.C's Peace River, several hundred kilometres upstream.
That dam helped power growth in northern B.C., but water flow changes it brought about had environmental impacts that rippled downstream as far away as the Mackenzie River delta, on the Arctic coast.
Mr. McLeod said it is unclear what impact Site C and continued development in the oil sands might have, and that's why a bilateral agreement is so important, because it would establish an extensive environmental monitoring system and a body to manage the entire basin.
"I have seen first-hand the changes that have resulted from development in the South," he told attendees at the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy on Wednesday. "I remember the river before the Bennett Dam was built, and I remember not being able to get to many of my favourite fishing and swimming holes afterwards," he said, according to his speaking notes.
In an interview, Mr. McLeod said a Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement was signed with all the jurisdictions in 1997, but in the 15 years since then the administrative mechanism to facilitate the agreement never materialized.
He said a lot of development has taken place since then and it is time to finally put a working agreement in place.
Thomas Axworthy, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, which is helping sponsor the conference, agreed, saying in a statement that an extensive water monitoring program needs to be established.
"The starting point of good water policy is knowledge and the starting point of knowledge is to monitor on a regular basis the quality of water in the Mackenzie Basin – for the health of the North, Canada and the world," Mr. Axworthy said.
The conference, which has attracted leading environmental scientists and legal experts, concludes Friday.