Originating high on the Columbia Icefield astride the Alberta/B.C. boundary and flowing a distance of some 1,800 kilometres, the Mackenzie is Canada's longest river.
Covering 20 per cent of Canada's landmass, it pours 14,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools into the Arctic Ocean every hour, discharging 100 million tons of sediment every year. The annual snow and ice cover in the northern Mackenzie basin creates a refrigerator-like cooling effect that plays a vital role in weather and climate patterns not just in Canada, but throughout the northern hemisphere.
Extending 1.8 million square kilometres, the Mackenzie's massive basin includes three major lakes, the Slave, Great Bear and the Athabasca, plus a web of significant rivers including the Peace, Athabasca, Liard, Hay, Peel, South Nahanni and Slave. The Mackenzie Delta alone contains 45,000 lakes.
As such, the Mackenzie provides immeasurably rich habitat for countless species of wildlife and birds that migrate as far south as South America, plus vast tracts of forest, peatlands, wetlands and tundra, all of which comprise a vital filter system that purifies the freshwater the river carries.
The Mackenzie also sustains Alberta's oil sands, northern mineral development and substantial barge traffic. Its tundra and permafrost store massive amounts of carbon which helps to regulate Earth's climate and take up some industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.
Concern over how this important watershed is managed into the future prompted an international panel of experts on aboriginal law, hydrology, biology, resource economics, political science and trans-boundary watershed issues to convene a special panel in Vancouver earlier this month (Sept. 5 - 7).
The Rosenberg Forum, the preeminent think-tank for global water-related issues, convened a panel to identify the legal and scientific principles relevant to establishing a coordinated basin-wide approach to management of the Mackenzie. Its summary report, due in January, will outline clear and precise guidelines for the river system, including setting objectives for surface and groundwater quality and quantity, emergency notification requirements and information exchange protocols.
With the Mackenzie basin's geographic situation placing it under six government jurisdictions — Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories (NWT) and Canada's federal government — that jurisdictional fragmentation threatens not just the health of the region's ecosystem, but also the people who depend on the river system for their food, drink, travel, economic growth, culture and spirituality.
Meanwhile, developments people rely on, such as B.C'.s W.A.C. Bennett Dam in its northern Peace region also threaten that health, as do declining river flows caused by the combination of oil sands development and numerous other factors including climate change.
"All of these are of great concern to a population downstream of the oil sands that still relies on the Mackenzie and its tributaries for water and for most of its protein," said panellist David Schindler, an ecologist with the University of Alberta.