Like the resource itself, the responsibility for managing the Yukon’s water flows freely between departments and levels of government.
“We’ve got seven different Yukon government departments that have water management responsibilities as well as the fact that there are other levels of government, including municipal, First Nations and the federal government, who all have a say and a stake in water as well,” said Environment Minister Currie Dixon.
That makes it difficult to co-ordinate management efforts, he said.
In an effort to get all the parties on the same page, the Yukon government is putting together a water strategy. This week it released a first draft of the strategy and put it out for public consultation.
The 16-page document lays out the government’s vision and goals.
“One of our priorities for this water strategy is to better understand and manage Yukon’s groundwater, which is something that we have to admit and take at face value that we don’t know as much about,” said Dixon.
Almost all of the Yukon’s drinking water is drawn from underground aquifers, which are difficult to study.
Getting information about that resource requires drilling down into it, but plenty of holes have already been dug in the populated areas of the territory, said Gerry Whitley a water resources consultant who spent more than two decades working on water issues for Ottawa.
“It wouldn’t take a huge drilling program – the data’s there if you can recover it,” he said.
Something as simple getting well drillers to submit their logs to a public database would yield a wealth of valuable aquifer information, he said.
“For the most part, it has ended up being part of the intellectual property of the well driller who uses it to sell to the next person down the street, so it’s lost in the bigger picture,” said Whitley.
Last year the environmental non-profit Ecojustice gave the territory a D-plus for drinking water protection because Whitehorse was the only town in the territory with a source-water protection program.
For the smaller communities, the wells are protected with setback rules.
In the south the big issue – identified after seven people were killed and more than 2,000 people made ill by E. coli bacteria from a contaminated municipal well in Walkerton, Ont. 12 years ago – is run-off from farms.
Even Ecojustice noted that in the Yukon that’s not much of an issue. Instead, the Yukon faces other challenges.
“One of the biggest issues we face in the Yukon with regards to water is climate change,” said Dixon. “We know that climate change is changing the way that water, in its various states in the cryosphere, behaves.
“In the Yukon, whether it’s melting earlier in the spring or running with higher turbidity or higher volume, we know that climate change is going to change water resources in the Yukon and we have to prepare for that.”
But that isn’t the only climate that’s changing, noted Whitley. “The economic climate is shifting and making it much harder to do long-term environmental stuff,” he said.
Scientific studies are expensive and the federal government, from which a lot of the territory’s funding for that kind of work flows, has shown reluctance to fund these kinds of things of late, said Whitley.
At the end of this month the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research station in Northern Ontario, is shutting down after 45-years of operation.
The federal government has cut the funding to the station, much to the chagrin of scientists and opposition MPs.
That cut will save the government $2 million a year, but the scientific community will lose a valuable tool for studying the effects of pollution on the environment, say critics.
Just how much this project will cost, how expansive it will be and how long it will take to complete is still being worked out, said Dixon.
“It’s a priority for me so I want to see it advance fairly rapidly,” he said. “But of course, the amount of work will be determined by how much input there is and how much input we get from other levels of government.”
The public has until May 31 to comment on the strategy, which can be found on the Environment Yukon website.
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