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28th August 2015
Low water levels in Athabasca River delta affecting residents, wildlife

By Cullen Bird, Today staff
Tuesday, August 25, 2015 5:45:36 MDT PM

A shallow Peace-Athabasca River Delta is causing transportation and food security issues for Fort Chipewyan residents and other river dwellers.

The Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas, is breaking historical records for low water levels.

Alberta Environment records from a monitoring station near Fort McMurray say the river is currently flowing at 450 cubic metres per second, compared to an average August flow of 789 cubic metres per second based on 57 years of data.

“The main reason for low flows now at this point of year is that there hasn’t been any precipitation,” said Lisa Glover, spokesperson for Alberta Environment. The Athabasca is fed by glacier and meltwater runoff by the Rocky Mountains, as well as local tributaries.

An early spring and a small snowpack means very little meltwater is sustaining is coming through the river now.

Low water levels have made travelling the river by boat treacherous, since a resident could easily smash a motor on an unseen sandbar, says Ronnie Campbell, a Mikisew Cree band councillor.

That means Fort Chipewyan residents can’t travel down the river to buy groceries from Fort McMurray, Campbell said.

“They get discouraged,” he said. “So they’re forced to buy groceries from our Northern Store, where the prices are ridiculously high.”

It also means residents can’t access or use their traditional hunting or fishing grounds, Campbell said.

The Mikisew Cree can hunt in the southern portion of Wood Buffalo National Park as part of their traditional land, Campbell said, but can’t access that land this year because the river routes used to get there are too shallow.

Archie Antoine, a 78-year-old Cree elder, says he can’t risk running aground in shallow waters, and that he’s not the only one.

“If I broke my motor here, I don’t know how I’m going to get around. I can’t buy a motor. I can’t afford it,” he said.

“So I’m stuck in Fort Chip here. We’ve got no choice but to go and buy groceries in our Northern store,” Antoine said. “We can’t afford to jump in a plane and get groceries.”

Antoine and Campbell both say the delta’s water levels and wildlife populations have been declining for decades.

Campbell blames climate change, the oil industry’s water use, and B.C.’s two existing dams on the Peace River as factors.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has also expressed concerns in the past about industry use of the river’s waters.

“I started trapping when I was about 15 years old,” Antoine said.

“The rapids just above Peace Point, in them days, you don’t even know there were rapids, the water was so high,” he said. Now a person can walk across the rapids at some points, he said.

“Ever since it started to get low, animals, you know for trapping, everything’s gone,” he said.

Antoine added that back in the mid-50s trappers could catch 50 muskrats a day. His best count last winter was 14.

A long-term plan is needed to ensure the river is preserved for all who use it, Campbell said.

“We need to sit down all together; federal government officials, provincial government officials, other provinces,” he said.

“We’ve all got to sit down and come up with a long term plan that’s going to benefit everyone.”