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Fort Smith embraces water-watch plan

Jack Danylchuk
Northern News Services
Published Monday, March 14, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - March has been a good month for the territorial government's strategic water strategy and its adviser, Erin Kelly.

At a meeting in Fort Smith, the public was presented with a plan that involves them directly in monitoring the health of the Slave River, and last week a peer review endorsed Kelly's work with David Schindler that exposed bitumen mines as polluters of the Athabasca River.

Kelly was a doctoral candidate working with Schindler, a world renowned water specialist at the University of Alberta, when they delivered reports that crushed the credibility of an industry-financed and managed monitoring program on the Athabasca.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach sought a review of the Schindler-Kelly reports. When the results were announced last week, Schindler said a weight had been lifted from his back.

So far, there is no published evidence that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals are filtering through the Athabasca delta and into the Slave River. A study from 1990 to 95 attributed the presence of those pollutants to natural sources, but an update of that report is under peer review and will be made public later this year.

The enthusiastic response in Fort Smith to community involvement in river monitoring is in marked contrast to Alberta where government efforts to engage the public in managing water issues in the Athabasca and Peace watersheds have met with suspicion, hostility and resistance.

In the Territories, "communities and aboriginal governments sought active roles as the government was laying plans for the strategic watershed strategy," said Judy McLinton, a spokesperson for the environment and natural resources department.

"The strategy also identified the need to select potential aquatic ecosystem indicators," McLinton said, and that was the main purpose of the workshop in Fort Smith.

Partners in the community-based monitoring program are the NWT Metis Nation, Fort Resolution Metis Council, Fort Smith Metis Council, Deninu K'ue First Nation, Smith's Landing First Nation, Environment and Natural Resources, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Aurora Research Institute, Aurora College, Pembina Institute, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, University of Waterloo and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.

The partnership is developing a state of the river and delta report and a vulnerability assessment for the Slave River. The information will be used to prioritize community-based monitoring and research initiatives and to inform ongoing agency-led monitoring in the area, McLinton said.

The initiatives are in addition to Environment Canada's current monitoring of the river and INAC's Slave River Environmental Quality Monitoring Program which will release an updated report later this year.

"ENR's role is to support community-based monitoring," McLinton said. "ENR has taken the lead on writing joint-funding proposals for the Slave River and Delta Community-Based Monitoring Partnership. The group has applied for funding from two different granting agencies. The proposed work was agreed upon during meetings of the partners."

Questioned about financing for the program, McLinton said "it is too early to put a final dollar figure on the community-based monitoring programs as they are still under development.

"Final costs will depend on the success of funding proposals already submitted to granting agencies. Additional proposals to other agencies will be submitted in the coming months," she said, but declined to identify the agencies.

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