What’s in Your Water?

The Mackenzie River Basin spans six provinces and territories, drains 20 percent of Canada’s land mass, and is increasingly impacted by resource development and climate change. Water quality in the vast, border-crossing basin is an ever-growing, turbulent topic. How is downstream development affecting upstream waters? Exactly what is the state of our water these days, and how quickly is it changing?

“There is a conversation happening across the North and all over Canada. People want to be involved in testing their waters because they’re concerned about freshwater health,” says Carolyn DuBois, water program manager with The Gordon Foundation – a Toronto-based organization that provides research and support to develop public policy around freshwater stewardship.

Today the DataStream has its first signatory outside of the territory. The Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern B.C. – the regional epicenter of LNG development in the province and the headwaters of the Peace River – has now partnered with the data project.

To foster that conversation, the foundation, partnered with the GNWT’s department of Environment and Natural Resources, has developed Mackenzie DataStream, an access point for water-related data – from turbidity and temperature, to dissolved solids and oil and gas chemicals (or hydrocarbons) – collected in 21 communities across the NWT through the Community-Based Monitoring Program.

And as of today the DataStream has its first signatory outside of the territory. The Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern B.C. – the regional epicenter of LNG development in the province and the headwaters of the Peace River – has now partnered with the data project.

The 800-member community’s information, collected through an ecosystem monitoring program, will be added to the database, an important next step in growing the scope and comprehensiveness of the project.

““We have invested in water monitoring and see tremendous value in sharing it on this open access platform,” Chief Liz Logan of the Fort Nelson First Nation said in a statement. “Mackenzie DataStream will allow this data to be used in our community as well as by our neighbours downstream in Yukon, Alberta and the Northwest Territories”. 

Water quality data  is now available on the public platform, something ENR’s acting manager of Watershed Programs and Partnerships Meghan Beveridge says was an interest of community members.

“We heard from participating communities that getting data back more quickly was important to them,” Beveridge tells EDGE. “They are also interested in what is happening upstream and in other parts of the NWT; so being able to see data from other places, and compare across sites, was something community partners expressed a strong desire to see.”

How to use it

From the homepage you can search for specifics such as datasets or locations, or browse data from a map highlighting the different points of collection.

Data is tracked on four sub-basins: Great Slave, Great Bear, Mackenzie, and Peel and Northwest Arctic Ocean, as well as the addition of Northeastern B.C.

Within each region there are further divisions of areas for specific points of monitoring. The number displayed on the area tells the number of sites – for example, around Yellowknife, there are three monitoring sites: Yellowknife Bay near Dettah, Yellowknife Bay near Ndilo and the Yellowknife River, upstream from the bridge. Once the region is selected, a new number label appears on each site, which gives the number of available datasets. In Yellowknife Bay at Ndilo, for example, there are two datasets: dissolved metals and surface water samples.

Selecting a dataset opens a page that graphs the data in selected locations. The graph can be manipulated to show any number of locations, as well as X and Y access characteristics – this could be a quality like turbidity or a specific element like dissolved arsenic.

The visualization options charts the results, but the straight dataset is also available, including the date and sample type.

In the pipeline

The site is still under construction – becoming more user-friendly since it was piloted at the end of 2015 with data from Dettah. From feedback throughout the development and pilot phase, Beveridge says features such as printable fact sheets that summarize statistics, graphs of results and additional information on data collection methods will be added.

“It will have interactive features and videos on how to enter information into DataStream, why we sample water and what the results mean, as well as features that can help build capacity to analyze and interpret data,” states Beveridge. “These features can help support decision-making at multiple levels.”

As well, different characteristics for monitoring, such as fish and climate data, are being considered.

And the addition of the Fort Nelson First Nation is just the first step in a series of new trans-border partners. Being able to engage with different jurisdictions – such as B.C. and eventually Alberta – was a reason DuBois says it was beneficial to have an independent platform through Gordon Foundation. “Our bigger goal with this whole project is to bring in data from throughout the basin, not just the NWT’s jurisdictional boundaries,” says DuBois.

While the NWT was the frontrunner, partnering and piloting the project, DuBois says it is a basin-wide initiative.

Why to use it

For starters, baseline information provides a reference for marking change.

“You could have a community considering a development in their area and they want to be able to check some different monitoring against what’s being done there,” says DuBois. “From 2012 to now, the idea is we’ll be able to have that baseline.”

It’s information that can be brought forward in assessing the environmental impact of development projects and the overall effect of climate change on the Mackenzie River Basin.

“One of the main purposes for developing DataStream was so community partners, like community lands and resources staff, could access the information quickly and easily,” says Beveridge. “People interested in seeing what water sampling – for example, through the NWT-wide Community-based Water Quality Monitoring program – is happening in their area, what parameters are being monitored, and what the results are, can access this information online through DataStream.”

With additional provincial and Aboriginal governments taking interest, particularly outside of the NWT, Beveridge says the site can be a useful tool for co-managing waters and developing transboundary water agreements – which the territory currently has with Alberta and British Columbia.

“ENR sees the benefit and importance of partnerships to build water stewardship capacity in the NWT and to be engaged in a project that is basin wide in scope,” she says. “As more partners from across the basin come on board, it will add value to DataStream and connect information together to tell the story of what is happening in the basin.”

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