The Last Great Water Fight —- The battle for the northern headwaters of the Mackenzie River

Diesel engines rumbled to life aboard the MV Atha. A deckhand cast off the lines, and Guy Thacker backed his forty-year-old red and white pusher tugboat away from its wharf in the tiny harbour at Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. A gentle turn set the vessel out onto Lake Athabasca, three battered barges lashed to the bow. The bright yellow backhoe on the leading edge of the middle one was an incongruous sight. It wasn’t part of Thacker’s paid cargo, which on most of his fortnightly trips each summer includes a few containers, some heavy equipment, and the occasional pickup truck. Rather, it was there to make sure the tug completed its twenty-five-hour run up the Athabasca River to Fort McKay, near several oil sands developments. “Once the Athabasca turns south,” Thacker explained, “it’s only three feet deep, some places two and a half.” The Atha needs three to float, so Thacker used the backhoe to dig his way through the shallows. “It never used to be like that,” he said. “I find a lot of junk in the river, too, the last few years,” added Thacker, four years older than his vessel and a resident of “Fort Chip” since birth. “Pipes, timbers. Last weekend, I was at the dock [at Fort McKay], watching an oil slick go by like someone was sitting up-current with a pail of oil, just dumping it slowly. An hour we watched it. With all these new oil plants along the river, obviously it’s coming from their places.” But even these are not the most distressing changes he has witnessed the past few years. Right on Fort Chip’s doorstep is a vast, verdant, and once hugely productive delta where the Athabasca merges with the Peace River before continuing northward as the Slave River. About 800 kilometres away, the W. A. C. Bennett Dam stands astride the headwaters of the Peace. Each spring, British Columbia’s Crown-owned electric utility collects snowmelt and rainwater from the northern Rocky Mountains behind the dam, forming one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. Come the early evenings and colder nights of autumn, when British Columbians demand more power to light and heat their homes, the company opens its gates to drive ten giant turbines, releasing a surge of water downstream. For the wildlife of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the flood arrives at the worst possible time. “The whole Slave rises six, seven feet, backs up in all these little creeks,” explained Thacker, who until recently ran traplines once the tugboat season ended. “The beaver have settled in for the winter, building their houses and putting in their feed. They aren’t expecting it, so they drown. In the spring, I go up a little creek by my cabin, probably four, five big [beaver] lodges there, they’re all dead, a lot of dead beaver floating around. And moose, too, all over, drowned.” Fort Chipewyan’s 1,000 mainly Cree, Dene, and Metis people have protested the injuries to their once-vital delta from upstream development for decades. But their struggle to preserve the unique biome where the oil-stained Athabasca and the pinched-off Peace meet is only a microcosm of a bigger battle being waged largely out of sightof most Canadians. It pits a constitutionally weak territory against rich southern neighbours, powerful resource companies, and the federal government. At stake is the future of the continent’s last expanse of undamaged life-supporting ecosystem. If the conflict between predatory industrial technocracy and a living web of spirit and biology imagined in James Cameron’s megahit Avatar is being played out anywhere on planet earth, it is here. Sixteen hundred kilometres downstream from Fort Chip, the Mackenzie River empties a watershed nearly the size of Western Europe into the Arctic Ocean. Draining half of Alberta and most of the Northwest Territories, as well as parts of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon, the Mackenzie is one of the world’s great water arteries. Sound management of this vast area “is important to the entire hemisphere,” according to the California-based Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy. Any impairment of its functions, the forum noted in a report last year, “will have costs to upstream neighbours, most Canadians, and people worldwide.” Of the Mackenzie’s three most important tributaries — the Peace, Athabasca, and Great Bear rivers — only the last still flows pure and untamed into what the Dene who live along its banks call Deh Cho: the “Big River.” But now, spurred by growing demand for water and energy, the governments of Alberta and BC are looking at new developments between the Mackenzie’s headwaters and its northern estuary, and, along with these, at how the watershed will be stewarded. Officials from Alberta, Ottawa, the Northwest Territories, and BC have been working since early this year to convert decade-old promises about how the Mackenzie River will be cared for into binding agreements. Done properly, those agreements “could be a global landmark in eco-hydrological management,” as the Rosenberg panel put it. Done poorly, they may condemn an area one-fifth the size of Canada to the same fate as the parched and contaminated Peace-Athabasca Delta. Additional layers of friction and risk ripple beneath that surface tension: a Conservative government intent on undoing a decade of northern land settlements to expedite resource extraction; a territorial legislature struggling for traction in a constitutional vacuum; the Northwest Territories’ fitful embrace of a new relationship with its indigenous Dene (Sahtu, Tlicho, Gwich’in, Akaitcho, and Dehcho), Inuvialuit, and Metis people; those same First Nations’ increasingly muscular assertion of rights granted under treaties both historic and modern; and doubts about the ability of science to measure, let alone limit, industry’s imprint on the wild. At their deepest level, the negotiations feature two starkly different views of humanity’s prerogatives. One has framed four centuries of North American development under Euro-colonial management. It puts man first, fashioning nature primarily as a resource for the fulfillment of human desires. The other sees our species as one — but only one — of nature’s creations, as dependent on a healthy habitat as any moose or beaver. Days after my visit with Guy Thacker, I met Michael Miltenberger, deputy premier ofthe Northwest Territories, over Chinese food in a Yellowknife restaurant. A journeyman carpenter who also serves as minister of finance and of environment and natural resources, Miltenberger is responsible for the territory’s side in the Mackenzie negotiations. Briskly energetic, with a warm smile that only rarely broke through his intense concentration, he considered the competing views the talks have exposed. In one, he saw “that highly arrogant human way we divide up everything, because we are the supreme beings on the planet.” In the other, a recognition that “if we don’t protect the land, the water, and the animals, they won’t look after us. We’re going to pay a price, and it will be incredibly brutal and painful.” Amazon North The Mackenzie basin is a geography of superlatives. At 1,802 kilometres — including tributaries, that figure stretches to 4,240 — the river itself is in a league with the Mississippi and the Yangtze. The abused junction of the Peace and the Athabasca is one of the planet’s two great interior deltas (the other is Africa’s Okavango), yet it is dwarfed by the fan of marshes, looping side channels, and braided islands where the Mackenzie empties into the Beaufort Sea — the irreplaceable summer home of millions of migratory waterfowl. The continent’s largest wild herds of caribou and bison and its healthiest populations of grizzly bears share the watershed, too. Great Bear Lake, the source of the Great Bear River, the Mackenzie’s third major inflow, is the largest freshwater body entirely within Canada, and the cleanest great lake left on the planet. But the region’s importance goes beyond bragging rights or even the untamed beauty that few Canadians ever see first-hand. Its economic history reflects the price the wealthy have been willing to pay for luxury: first furs, later gold, and more recently diamonds. The wealth extracted from the Northwest Territories gives it a gross domestic product that in 2008 reached an average of about $91,300 for each of its 43,700 residents — the highest of any Canadian province or territory. The figure is deceptive, of course: little of that is controlled by the territory’s citizens. Outside Yellowknife, most communities are unreachable by road except in winter, when ice bridges can be built. Many resemble the developing world more than they do statistically poorer places in Canada’s south. If luxuries underwrote the basin’s past, its present is being shaped by something more basic: energy. To understand why, it helps to grasp a seldom-noted fact. Water powers the twenty-first century as fundamentally as it did the nineteenth, when practically every river east of Lake Huron turned a water wheel. And water from the Mackenzie system is a prerequisite for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of Canada as an energy superpower. ((OCT 2010))


















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