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GLOBAL WATER FUTURES RESTORING THE SASKATCHEWAN DELTA
By Suzanne Forcese
Global Water Futures (GWF) and the University of Saskatchewan along with its GWF partners University of Waterloo, McMaster University, and Wilfrid Laurier University, together with 14 Indigenous communities, are embarking upon 6 Indigenous co-led projects across Canada. With $1.6M of funding from GWF, the main focus of the projects is to advance understanding of traditional knowledge and western science indicators to research and aid in water governance, food security, sediment restoration, water security, climate change and human and ecosystem health in Indigenous communities.
WaterToday spoke with Dr. John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and Director of GWF, a Canada First Research Excellence Fund program. Dr. Pomeroy had just returned from the Second Annual Open Science Meeting meant to review and link together GWF's technical and scientific advancements with researchers, partners and stakeholders to promote further indigenization of GWF. What was most exciting and long overdue was that "for the first time in the history of Canada a significant part of the meeting - involving participants from around the world - was the venue, on First Nations territory," Dr. Pomeroy told WT. The event was held at Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon. Wanuskewin, a UNESCO World Heritage designation, is a 6400 year old gathering place of every nation indigenous to the Northern Plains. "It's really quite remarkable that this is the first time that our Indigenous people have been involved in discussions on important water issues that face the Canadian Prairies." The range of discussions examined climate and hydrology; human dimensions and hydro-economics; ecosystems; and water quality. Dr. Pomeroy said "The event showcased the range and quality of research being done across GWF and the collaboration of Indigenous culture in response to the challenges."
"We are seeing profound changes to our river basins that affect us all, but no one in Canada is more affected by these changes than those in Indigenous communities." According to a report by Indigenous Services Canada there are 64 long-term water advisories on First Nations communities in Canada. Water quality is just one of the many community water security challenges arising from resource development and climate change. "We are working with our Indigenous partners in unprecedented ways to co-develop solutions while trying to de-colonialize water science."
One of the Projects involves three communities at Cumberland House - Cumberland House Cree Nation, Northern Village of Cumberland House, and Metis Local 42. Over the past century, profound changes have occurred upstream of the Saskatchewan River Delta, the largest inland delta in North America. The Project, We Need More Than Just Water, will assess sediment in the Saskatchewan River Delta at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, to determine whether it is feasible to restore sediment downstream of a dam and thereby rejuvenate the freshwater delta ecosystem. This is where the 'de-colonialization' of water will play into the project's purpose. "Water science and management have been controlled by governments," Dr. Pomeroy said. "Dams are built to control flooding never recognizing the inherent rights of land holders of those First Nations who are downstream of the dams. The hazards to those communities include BWA's, mercury poisoning, and saline water spills from oil and gas industries onto reserves. We see a water treatment plant on the most populated Ohswekew Reserve in Ontario, that was not connected to the houses of the community. The wells are still full of contaminants and Nestle is extracting water not far away. In the Yukon, a dam destroyed an entire community. The right mechanisms are just not in place for First Nations."
The We Need More Than Just Water Project is co-led by Tim Jardine, USask associate professor of aquatic toxicology, and Gary Carriere, president of the Cumberland House Fishermen's Co-operative. Jardine's work also includes teaching and research in a graduate-student program at The School of Environment and Sustainability at USask. The school has a highly international mix representing 25 countries including First Nations and Canadian students contributing to an atmosphere of global relevance.
WT caught up with Jardine by telephone where he was just wrapping up a research/teaching assignment in New Zealand before returning to work on the project in Cumberland House. "In Canada development has driven the unsustainable exploitation and the marginalization of Indigenous women and men," Jardine told WT. Today indigenous people are gaining recognition and rights and responsibilities for sustainable development which is reflected in various international conventions and commitments. Sustainability requires deliberate processes of reconciliation as described by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) as the ongoing establishment and maintenance of respectful relationships among people and cultures and between people and natural environments. "Within the community, a sense of empowerment around planning will be built, allowing community leaders to guide the process from start to finish," Jardine referred to the Project in The Saskatchewan Delta.
The Saskatchewan Delta, a treasure unknown to most Canadians, is one of the largest inland Deltas in North America and once was one of the most biologically rich landscapes in Canada. The Saskatchewan River flows 1200 kilometers from the Canadian Rockies collecting run-off from the prairies and Boreal Plains then spilling into a maze of channels cutting across the low-lying forests and wetlands
of the Delta. A 10,000 square kilometer network of waterways, wetlands and low-lying forests and "Important Bird Area", the Delta provides habitat for millions of migratory birds. The area's forest sustains lynx, wolf, black bear, moose and elk.
WT spoke with the man who Dr. Pomeroy says "embodies the whole Delta". Gary Carriere who describes himself as a Delta Advocate has lived the traditional ways his entire life and is also involved in eco-tourism. Carriere has worked alongside scientists and water researchers for 35 years. WT wanted to learn what Dr. Pomeroy meant "we are working with the community to show the value of what they already know to see how this can merge with western science." Like the flow of the river, it did not take long to be carried by Carriere's words punctuated with pauses filled with a grief that words simply could not express. "The river's purpose is to carry sediment to the wetlands. It is her regime. She is still trying to do her purpose but she can't get her sediment from the river so she says I'm going to get my load wherever I can." The entire ecosystem has been disrupted by several dams including the E.B. Campbell Dam built in 1962 just upstream of Cumberland House and downstream by the Grand Rapids Dam. "There were no impact studies done in those days and we did not know any better. They offered jobs," Carriere lamented. These two dams affect water levels and nutrient flow into the Saskatchewan River. The natural flow of the river has been altered. The transport of sediment has all but stopped and wetlands are being starved of nutrients. Hydro-electric structures prevent seasonal floods, speeding up what should be a slow change. Cumberland Lake used to be 22 feet deep. Now it is only about 3 feet deep. "Leaving the wetlands high and dry," Carriere says.
"When the first trading post was established in 1774 the Delta was wealthy with wildlife. The natural way then was the spring thaw in the mountains would flood the area in June till late July. Come August the Delta would recede leaving mud tracks. Birds love that. Now there are no birds. There is limited water and starvation of sediment. The river's purpose is to carry sediment."
The Delta's ecosystems store billions of tonnes of carbon in a vast peatland and boreal forest ecosystem, acting as a critical natural storehouse for carbon and buffer against climate change. Fluctuating water levels are damaging to plant and animal life in the Delta. Changes in nutrient content of the water and soil mean uncertain growth patterns for vegetation and fish.
Hydroelectric dams kill downstream wildlife. A free-running river has its heaviest flows in spring and summer. A dam stores this vital water in the reservoir then dumps it through turbines in mid-winter when the demand for electricity is highest. Wildlife and aquatic species are unable to adapt to the heavy flows after freeze-up.
"We still have the traditional lifestyle but it's getting harder. When I first started fishing with my father, we needed only 6 nets to fill a whole boat with fish. Now we need 20-30 nets just to get 2 tubs worth. They turned the reservoir into a sports fishing area for tourists. When our Northern Pike are spawning they cut the water leaving our Pike eggs high and dry. Now they don't even spawn anymore. No Pike now. Just suckers. No balance anymore. Suckers are eating the eggs." Pomeroy added that Carriere had wanted to bring a muskrat to the meeting in Wanuskewin to demonstrate the traditional ways but he came empty-handed. "We used to make a living fishing and trapping," said Carriere. Muskrats that
depend on spring freshets no longer arrive. "The Delta is shrinking along with habitat for countless species," Jardine added. "At the same time demand for water is increasing for household purposes, agricultural irrigation and industrial needs further reducing the flow. The entire ecosystem is out of balance."
Water quality is an issue too. Carriere says before the dam he was able to drink raw water but now it is so filled with contaminants. "Farmers are dumping a lot of garbage into our water with their fertilizers. The natural regime has been affected by agriculture. Algae is a problem now too."
Another threat to the wetlands is a prolific invasive perennial grass, Phragmites Australis, lowers biodiversity and secrets gallic acid which is toxic to native plants. One way to control it is through burning - something which was regularly done by trappers for generations. However, the practice is currently discouraged by the provincial government.
"We are trying to prolong the life of the Delta," Carriere added. "We are doing a lot of figuring out how to move sediment from the reservoir to disturb the bottom and then maybe open the dam so the natural energy of the water can move the sediment." That raises another problem. "We don't know yet what contaminants are in that sediment now. Nobody knows what's going on. We need a voice."
Carriere believes "it was meant to be" that Jardine has initiated the Project. As the only real steward of the Delta, Carriere has provided input and collaboration with various scientists from the United States and Europe in this living lab but it has only been the past two years that GWF has come on board. "It doesn't take science to know the Delta is dying but it takes science for governments to listen."
Together with elders in the community a historical understanding of floods and sediment transport will be examined. Testing for toxicity in the sediments that are currently depositing in the reservoirs is necessary to ensure that moving sediment back into the delta will not create harmful effects. Models of sediment transport under different scenarios will be studied. A Delta Stewardship Committee will guide the study and they will make a recommendation based on information gathered as to the direction in helping restore, rejuvenate, and sustain the Delta ecosystem and its people.
Jardine admits, "For 50 years the Cumberland water system has been managed upstream. Their voice has not been heard. We are joining with the community for long-term water management and governance. Many are tired of research without actionable items."
Pomeroy underscores that sentiment, "We have always had predict points for water quality but never on First Nations land. It is of necessity that Canada changes the way it manages water across the country to take over whole river basins or the health of the ecosystems and the economy."
The Saskatchewan River is the 3rd largest in Canada passing through many populated areas. At the end of the journey Cumberland House is home to both the Swampy Cree and the Metis (who trace their ancestry to First Nations peoples and European settlers, early fur traders who intermarried with the aboriginal inhabitants of the region). The Cumberland House Cree Nation has approximately 820 members living on reserve and another 750 members living off reserve. The nearby Northern Village of Cumberland house is largely a Metis community of about 770 people. The original Cumberland House dates to 1774 and is the oldest permanent settlement in Western Canada. In the Swampy Cree dialect, its name is Waskahika meaning "at the house".
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