How is Yukon’s newly proposed water strategy different from other provincial and territorial water strategies? It’s not, really, says Heather Jirousek, a program advisor at Environment Yukon’s water resources branch. “We want water for people and water for nature. We looked at other jurisdictions are doing.”
What’s unique is not the strategy—it’s the water, she adds. “We have extensive frozen and groundwater resources. Two-thirds of our population lives in Whitehorse. The rest is spread over a vast landscape. We have very few downstream impacts, and we don’t have industrial demand.” Jirousek says that major challenges include strengthening and expanding existing groundwater monitoring and management programs, as well as following up on a 2011 climate change vulnerabilities report.
Water Canada spoke with Jirousek to learn more about the process of defining the territory’s water strategy.
How did the government set the goals and priorities for the strategy?
The Draft Yukon Water Strategy builds on previous work of a water management framework which was an inventory of Yukon government (YG) water management programs and an analysis of gaps and water issues that needed to be addressed. A number of initiatives came out of that work, including the development of a website and a report on the vulnerabilities of a warming climate to Yukon waters. At the same time, it was recognized that a water strategy with priority areas and actions, guided by a vision and principles, was needed in order to direct resources and address complex water issues in a more coordinated way.
Based on the work of the Water Management Framework, the government hosted a Water Forum in 2010 inviting representatives from municipal, First Nation, federal, and Yukon governments. The seven [territorial government] departments with water responsibilities worked together to draft a discussion document for stakeholder input for a water strategy. In June 2012, we held a workshop with 41 participants from municipal, First Nation, federal and Yukon governments who helped confirm the priority areas and provided input which shaped the vision, principles and goals. Based on input received from that workshop, the draft Yukon Water Strategy was developed.
What’s unique about Yukon’s water strategy?
Yukon’s draft water strategy is similar to many other water strategies. It seeks to address water for people (including drinking water and for sustainable economic development) and water for nature (healthy aquatic ecosystems) and strives to do so through stewardship and cooperation.
What’s more unique is less about our strategy and more about our water. Here are some examples:
- We have a small population and are rich in water resources.
- Many agencies manage and advocate for the protection of water resources including federal, territorial, municipal, FN, government departments, boards and councils and NGOs.
- We have an abundance of water covering about 8,000 square kilometres of the territory in six major watersheds.
- We have extensive groundwater resources and aquifers as well as widespread frozen water sources such as glaciers and permafrost.
- Two-thirds of Yukoners live Whitehorse.
- We have 14 First Nations and 11 are self-governing.
- Most of our waters originate in the Yukon, so we don’t experience the same downstream effects as our neighbours in the Northwest Territories.
- We do not have the high degree of industrial users, contamination issues, nor the water scarcity issues of southern jurisdictions, so our need for a water strategy may differ in what drives it.
What drives [the strategy] for Yukon has been more internal to government. We recognize our need to better understand and manage our groundwater and we know through some of our monitoring programs that a warming climate is changing our water regime. We also see other jurisdictions moving forward with their own water strategies and would like to be as proactive as possible by addressing some of our more complex water issues in a coordinated way. A water strategy developed with input from Yukoners will help ensure water managers’ decisions reflect the values of Yukoners.
What are the territory’s three biggest water challenges?
Groundwater is a challenge for Yukon in that we need to better understand and manage Yukon’s groundwater. Almost all of Yukon’s drinking water is drawn from groundwater; however, we don’t know a lot about this resource. While there are some programs in place, they are limited. Improvements to our understanding, monitoring and management of that resource are essential.
Another big issue we face in the north is climate change. We know that water systems are changing and will continue to change in response impacts from a warming climate. A report from 2011 on climate change vulnerabilities identified these changes which include earlier spring river break-up dates and permafrost degradation. Some thoughtful recommendations were also included, many of which have been carried forward into the Water Strategy, like reviewing and adjusting our water monitoring networks to ensure adequate information is available for good decision making.
Both of the above issues are identified as priorities. There are four others, but I can’t say that I would put any one of them ahead of the other. However, it is recognized that there are seven departments with either a mandate or strong interest in water management issues and this strategy is a great opportunity for us to work together and better understand where we can improve our program areas in a coordinated way. At the same time, there are other levels of government within the Yukon that have mandates for water: municipal, federal and First Nation governments. We’re hoping this strategy will start the conversation in working together on those areas of responsibility that we would benefit from a stronger collaboration.
Public feedback on the draft strategy is due on May 31. This interview was conducted as part of “Canada, In Brief,” a cross-country policy update published in Water Canada’s May/June 2013 issue.