The Mackenzie River stretches more than 1,700 kilometres and drains a 1.8-million-square-kilometre swath of land—a fifth of the country. It’s Canada’s largest watershed and the tenth largest in the world, and its main stem and tributaries form the natural highways that connect communities. They are the lifeblood of ecosystems that support people and wildlife throughout the North.
Dubbed the Cold Amazon, the largely intact Mackenzie watershed also helps to regulate Earth’s climate—as both a giant storehouse for carbon and a refrigerator through alternating seasons of ice cover and flowing water. Changes in the watershed affect the entire planet, and the people who live here say many climatic changes have already begun, including melting permafrost that triggers landslides and releases carbon from the previously frozen soil.
For the last century, a patchwork of land-use and management policies have been passed by towns, territories and provinces that often fail to account for the vast watershed’s interconnected features. Water used by British Columbia’s Peace Region’s hydroelectric dams and oil and gas projects, and Alberta’s oil sands, flows north through communities in the Northwest Territories, and eventually spills out across the Mackenzie Delta and into the Arctic Ocean. What happens upstream has major implications for those living downstream.
In the waning light of November 14, 2016, the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart was finally lifted from the chilly water off British Columbia’s Athlone Island—32 days after it ran aground on its way south from Alaska.
When the tug struck the rocks on Edge Reef shortly after 1:00 a.m. on October 13, it was pushing a 10,000-tonne-capacity fuel barge. The barge was empty, but the tug still leaked about 110,000 liters of diesel and more than 2,200 liters of engine lubricants into the waters near Bella Bella, a town of 1,450 people in the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation. Strong winds and high tides pushed the fuel across Seaforth Channel and into Gale Creek, the site of an ancient Heiltsuk village, polluting critical marine habitats and harvesting sites.
“It was horrific—seeing the ocean full of diesel, and that sickening odor,” recalls Jordan Wilson, a Heiltsuk coastal guardian watchman, and one of the first on the scene. “All the hydraulic oils and engine oils—everything was just oozing out of that boat for weeks.”
With each tide, the toxins washed higher up on shorelines of surrounding islands. “That’s where I’d go to harvest food to share with my family and friends,” adds Wilson, “but not anymore.”
For many people outside the community, it was just another media story—a snapshot of a tragic event from a remote place. For locals, the spill lives on in myriad ways, with authorities still feeling the effects of a months-long drain on already strapped financial and human resources, and fishers unable to harvest manila clams and other species that may have been contaminated.
Queen’s University civil engineers have the pulse on the water pipes, gas lines and sewers that lie beneath our feet.
We all know it’s there, but it’s easy to take for granted. Buried beneath the ground is a network of pipes that not only makes your life bearable but also keeps you alive. Just like other types of infrastructure, these old water pipes, gas lines and storm sewers are starting to break down, and fixing them is an expensive undertaking.
In a tiny village near Toronto, the water contains less lead than the cleanest ice layers in the Arctic.
If you look closely at the countryside surrounding Elmvale, Ont., a tiny village about 90 minutes north of Toronto, you’ll see the natural and ever-gushing wells of the aptly named Springwater township.
The locals have always known that their water is clean, but they’re only beginning to understand just how clean.