“The Mackenzie River Basin is one of the world’s few that remains relatively unspoiled,” says Henry J. Vaux, Jr., professor emeritus of resource economics at University of California, Riverside. Today, the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy releases a report on its workshop on the transboundary relations in the basin. What are the major threats to the basin’s health? How do we maintain and preserve it? Water Canada spoke with Professor Vaux, who is also chair of Rosenberg Forum, to learn more about the report and the forum’s recommendations.
Why did the Rosenberg Forum choose to focus on the Mackenzie?
It’s is a very important river basin; it provides natural services throughout basin and beyond. It’s one of the world’s few that remains relatively unspoiled, and thus provides a useful place for doing science. It’s also a basin that is clearly under threat.
What is the biggest threat facing the Mackenzie Basin?
There are two main threats. One is the threat of expanded economic development, which includes mining and the extraction of hydrocarbons, as well as the further development of hydropower. We’re also concerned about the consequences of global warming.
Global warming is going to make the basin less resilient, so we need to expand the extractive industry in a more balanced way. The expert panel does not conclude that all mining and hydroelectric development has to [end]. It just must be balanced with the needs of all of the basin’s stakeholders.
What are some of the difficulties we face in protecting the basin?
From a scientific perspective, the most urgent need is for a robust and extensive monitoring program. We don’t have adequate data about the Mackenzie, such as the river flow, the quality of its water, et cetera. That’s the job of the federal government, and it needs investment on an ongoing basis.
There’s also the issue of governance. The basin touches three provinces, two territories, and a number of traditional territories of indigenous people. We recommend reinvigorating the Mackenzie River Basin Board, originally started in the 1990s. It should serve as the basis of a new, strong governing institution, adequately funded by the federal government and the governments of those provinces and territories. We also recommend there be an independent international scientific advisory committee that remains politically and administratively separated. That way, you get the best scientific advice without corruption.
Uncertainty is also a difficulty, and there are two kinds of uncertainty. One is simply a lack of knowledge that can be addressed through a robust monitoring program and by advancing a program of prioritized scientific research.
Secondly, the environment itself is uncertain. We can’t predict what’s going to happen with global warming, and that’s why we make a strong recommendation that the management be unified and adaptive. If a strategy proceeds and works, we should continue. If not, it should be adapted to address concerns.
One of the report’s recommendations suggests performance bonds for the extractive industry. Can you tell us more about that idea?
The panel felt strongly about this idea, which stems from a conversation we had about what happened at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine (see page 14 of the report). There are many other examples in which companies decamped sites or went broke, leaving the job of dealing with the waste for the public sector. Our concern is simple: it’s up to the public to decide whether to pay for the cleanup, or to ask the companies to do it. A performance bond would compel companies to be responsible for their own wastes or mess when mine or pit is played out.
We’re not particularly wed to performance bond, but in absence of an incentive, there is no reason to expect that this practice won’t continue. But the threat that [toxins and contaminants] pose to environment and its inhabitants can’t be ignored.
Find the full report at rosenberg.ucanr.org