Canadian Geographic
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Watershed awareness

Northern watershed issues

Approximately 40 percent of Canada’s fresh water lies north of 60 degrees latitude. Together, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut contain 9.2 percent of the world’s total fresh water, and 60 percent of Canada’s fresh water flows north to the Arctic and subarctic.

In fact, the subarctic and Arctic are where most of Canada’s remaining water riches are found. Take the Mackenzie River watershed, containing Canada’s longest river, for example. This watershed spans three provinces and two territories and drains 20 percent of Canada’s land mass into the Arctic Ocean drainage basin. One of the most productive ecosystems in northern Canada, the Mackenzie Delta relies on the river to feed its more than 50,000 lakes.

Canada’s National Water Research Institute has warned of the threat to Canada’s water supply from climate change. Mean annual temperatures in the western Canadian Arctic, for example, increased by two to three Celsius degrees between 1954 and 2003. Arctic freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they respond to even the smallest temperature fluctuations. Significant shifts in species range, diversity and food webs are likely to occur in Arctic freshwater ecosystems. Already, peak runoff in rivers in the Arctic, interior and northern Yukon Territory has decreased in 23 out of 28 river basins.

Collaborative watershed management regimes are critical in Canada’s North, since the water that flows across the Yukon borders Alaska, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

First Nations water rights, water governance and consultation are especially critical where treaties between Canada and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis recognize title to tens of thousands of square kilometres of land. The Yukon First Nations, for example, own more land than exists in all the reserves across southern Canada. As of 1982, aboriginal rights, including water rights, became constitutionally protected and cannot be infringed upon by governments.

Mining and the construction of oil and gas pipelines can have an effect on watersheds in the Northwest Territories. A case in point is the proposed 1,196-kilometre-long Mackenzie Valley Pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Beaufort Sea to connect with an existing pipeline in northwestern Alberta. And, in the Yukon, a technique for recovering gold from gravel, called placer mining, can also be cause for concern.


This piece features a dynamic, interactive map supported by a narrated explanation of Canada’s continental watersheds.


On the next page:

Rural Canadians in action

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Quiz :

The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council's mandate is:

To be able to drink water directly from the Yukon River."
To be able to see the Yukon River from all areas.
To be able to swim in the Yukon River