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Report highlights development threats on Canadian watershed

Posted on behalf of Hannah Hoag.

Mackenzie Basin - Graphic1

Canada’s Mackenzie River basin

Without better governance, a robust science programme and stronger regulations for extractive industries and hydroelectric developments, Canada’s massive Mackenzie River basin could continue to face destroyed landscapes and massive bills for environmental clean-ups, an international panel of experts warns in a report issued today.

The Mackenzie River is the longest river in Canada, pouring 10.3 million litres of fresh water, the equivalent of four Olympic swimming pools, into the Arctic Ocean per second. Its ecosystems are mostly intact. They provide breeding habitat for migratory birds and include wetlands, boreal forest and carbon dioxide–absorbing peat lands, but they are at risk under warming climate scenarios and natural-resource development.

But the watershed includes the aptly named Giant Gold Mine, which sits not far from the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife. The mine stopped milling gold in 1999 after more than 50 years of operations, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2004, leaving behind a bill of Can$800 million (US$787 million) for taxpayers to clean up hundreds of thousands of tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust buried in the thawing permafrost and at risk of entering the ground water.

The basin “must be viewed as part of the global commons”, says Henry Vaux Jr, a natural-resources economist at the University of California in Berkeley who chaired the panel, which wants national and international governments to recognize the economic value of the basin’s ecosystem services.

In the late 1990s, a master agreement for the Mackenzie basin called for multi-party collaboration and cooperation to manage the basin’s land and water resources. Vaux says it never worked. Dissatisfaction with current approaches to policy development in the region by federal, provincial and territorial governments prompted the report.

The panel, which includes experts on water, biology, political science and law, says that the Mackenzie River Basin Board’s $270,000 annual budget is “totally inadequate” and calls for the federal government to provide a tenfold boost — at minimum. This would support an independent international science-advisory council and a robust monitoring programme, under the responsibility of the federal government.

The report also concludes that extractive industries should post a substantial performance bond to protect the waters and lands from contamination and provide incentive for clean up after operations have ceased.

The Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy organized the panel and produced the report for the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a philanthropic group based in Toronto, Ontario, that focuses on improving public policy in Canada’s North and for its fresh water.


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