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Water monitoring gathers data on Mackenzie basin
Scientists investigate whether melting permafrost could lead to water contamination in the region

April Hudson
Northern News Services
Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Canadian arm of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has turned its attention to the NWT with two new project announcements.

NNSL photo/graphic

Aerial view of Fort Simpson and the confluence of Liard River, top left, and Mackenzie River. - photo courtesy of WWF

The organization has launched an initiative to comprehensively gather data on watersheds across the country. On Aug. 3, it announced it would be funding water monitoring projects in Trout Lake and the Tlicho.

WWF will be providing funds to Ecology North, which will be sending staff out to Trout Lake to teach local community members how to test their water. In particular, the project will focus on determining the health of the watershed and identifying potential threats, including threats posed by historic drilling in the region.

Craig Scott, executive director for Ecology North, said the group chose Trout Lake because of a longstanding relationship. In particular, Ecology North's water program manager Blair Carter has been working in the community for years developing a water protection plan.

"We're hoping to work with the community. We have a community co-ordinator there and we're going to work with them to provide training and expertise so (community members) can do the water quality testing themselves," Scott said. "We've already inventoried all potential water quality threats in the watershed, and elders and community members are going to decide which ones to focus on."

Seven or eight threats will be identified and examined, he added.

Measures include soil and water testing as well as examining permafrost and vegetation growth.

"One of the main focuses of this is to look at oil and gas sumps from historical drill sites in the 1970s to 1990s," Scott said. "Back in those days, they built pits and buried the waste from their drilling process."

In some regions, such as the Beaufort Delta, Scott said scientists are discovering that those sites - which were supposed to be encapsulated in permafrost - could potentially be contaminating water because permafrost is melting.

"We're trying to investigate if a similar process is happening in the Deh Cho region," he said.

WWF Canada's vice-president of freshwater James Snider said once data is collected it will be added to his organization's online website as part of the comprehensive study of watersheds.

The Trout Lake project was approved as one of 14 projects funded by the Loblaw Water Fund, which in turn gets its money from a plastic bag tax the company charges. Those 14 projects were whittled down from more than 100 applications.

Ten projects were approved last year, as well, but these are the first two to take place in the NWT.

"Right now, we have data on 50 per cent of Canada's watersheds that have been assessed and are available on our website. By 2017, WWF will have completed watershed reports right across the country," Snider said. "It's a major undertaking."

In the Mackenzie basin, WWF took a look at accessible data and found it to be deficient.

"We have a whole suite of metrics to determine both health and threats. For health in particular, what we look at is fish species, water quality ... as well as hydrologies - the amount of water in the river and its seasonality," he said. "We're gathering all the monitoring being done and all the data accessible to us and determine whether that meets criteria in terms of how and what is being sampled."

Scott said the project will use traditional knowledge within Trout Lake to give Ecology North a better idea of what is really happening on the land.

Carter will be in the community from Aug. 26 to 28, and Ecology North will return in September and then in early 2016 to provide its results.

"Sambaa K'e has been really great to work with so far and we're excited about working more with them," Scott said. "We're looking forward to helping them understand their water and reduce the threats."

A representative for Trout Lake was not available for comment.

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