Water and its known unknowns

The Yukon is renowned for its pristine watersheds, but very little is known about these ecosystems. "There is not enough baseline data," said Angela Sabo.

The Yukon is renowned for its pristine watersheds, but very little is known about these ecosystems.

“There is not enough baseline data,” said Angela Sabo.

Originally from Germany, Sabo was drawn to the territory by its reputation for pristine wilderness.

She has a special interest in the Peel River basin.

“The Peel River has been my hobby for a while,” said Sabo.

When she started doing research into the regulations that protect watersheds, like the Peel, what she found was troubling.

“There’s no research,” she said. “They don’t even know where the fish are.”

Sabo is not a water expert, but she does have a scientific background – she holds a master’s degree in physics.

While she might not be an expert, water resources consultant Gerry Whitley is as close as they come.

Whitley spent more than two decades working on water resource issues for Ottawa.

Despite this, he wouldn’t claim to be an expert.

“I’m not sure if there is one,” he said. “It’s a complicated little matter, how to manage water.”

Whitley agrees with Sabo’s conclusions on the lack of important baseline data.

“There’s very little flow information, it’s sporadic,” he said.

Much of that information is gathered from a network of monitoring stations installed more than 50 years ago.

And that’s only half the story.

“There’s virtually no groundwater information in the Yukon,” said Whitley.

When groundwater comes up to the surface and mixes with river water it creates overwintering habitats for fish.

While that is known, what isn’t known is where these areas are.

“All we have is flow rate, at a few locations mind you, and it begs the question where the fish are overwintering,” said Dave Loeks, chairman Peel Watershed Planning Commission. “We don’t know those questions.”

In areas where there has been development, much more information is available.

It’s actually the companies that are looking develop an area that do much of the basic data collection.

In a region like the Peel, which is largely untouched, it’s much more of a mystery.

“With those things in mind, if we really wanted to do a creditable job of environmental assessment we’d have to say we’re actually faking it,” said Loeks. “We don’t have that baseline data.”

Climate change is another big unknown for northern regions like the Peel.

“The Peel is basically an ice cube with a thin strip of vegetation and dirt sitting on top of it,” said Whitley. “And it’s melting.”

With so many gaps in the data, it’s very important the people charged with assessing the environmental impacts are all the more expert, he said.

“With less information you require more skilled people,” said Whitley. “At the present junction in the Yukon, those skilled people are few and far between and at a premium.

Officials with the Yukon Socio-economic Assessment Board, the body charged with evaluating the environmental impacts of specific projects, are also concerned about the lack of data.

“We’ve always said one of our biggest challenges is the lack of baseline data,” said. YESAB spokesperson Rob Yeoman

The board has the ability to demand an applicant go out and collect data.

The companies are tasked with data collection and it’s “pretty rare,” the board would send someone out to check the data on site, said Yeoman.

“Most assessments are desk-top exercises,” he said.

This process has its flaws, said Whitley.

“All those things are put off until the last possible minute, which means developments go ahead with only a few years of information, which isn’t enough,” he said. “It’s all collected by the developer, spending as little money as possible, and there’s no way to sit back and do an independent assessment of it, or even have a before or after picture, it doesn’t exist.”

Under current legislation, any degradation of the water or wildlife is grounds for monetary compensation.

But without the ability form a clear picture of what the ecosystem looks like in a pristine state, there really is no way to gauge the impact that a development has, said Whitley.

“What we haven’t done is put in a system that would insure that you could go to court and argue that yes things have changed or know they haven’t’ changed,” he said.

For Sabo the answer to all this is simple.

“I’m thinking that we need to have funding from the government for research,” she said.

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