Top Ten Endangered Canadian Rivers Named

David Braun with Sean Markey
National Geographic News
July 7, 2003
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Seven percent of the world's freshwater flows through Canadian rivers. But industrial development and pollution threaten many of Canada's rivers, according to the environmental groups EarthWild International and To highlight rivers at risk, the groups announced their second annual list of the country's ten most endangered rivers today.

Topping the list is New Brunswick's Petitcodiac River. A long-standing causeway on the river dams tidal flow from the Atlantic Ocean, adversely impacting river health. Quebec's Eastmain and Rupert rivers, threatened by a planned hydro-electric project, follow in second place. Other rivers on the 2003 National Endangered Rivers List include three in British Columbia: the Okanagan (third), and the Taku and Iskut rivers (tied for fourth place); followed by Ontario's Groundhog River (fifth); Alberta's Milk and Bow rivers (sixth and tenth, respectively); the Yukon and Northwest Territory's Peel River (seventh); Manitoba's Red River (eighth); and Labrador's Churchill (ninth).

National Geographic News recently spoke with David Boyd, chairperson of Canada's Endangered Rivers Committee for Vancouver-based EarthWild International, about the list.

Five rivers on the list cross the Canada/U.S. border. Are there special concerns associated with such transboundary rivers?

By their very nature, rivers that cross borders are subject to multiple demands and multiple abuses, creating potential tension between those people living upstream and those living downstream. Transboundary rivers like the Red, Milk, and Taku offer an opportunity for neighbors like Canada and the U.S. to cooperate in conserving and protecting rivers that are important to both nations. Although certain tools exist, like the International Joint Commission and the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, governments on both sides of the border have been slow to take the actions required to adequately respect and protect great rivers like the Taku, which runs through Alaska and British Columbia.

Most of the rivers on the list seem to be located close to urban centers. Are rivers nearer to cities under greater threat in Canada?

Canada's most endangered rivers fall into two broad categories—those that pass through or near major cities and wilderness rivers far from urban areas. Rivers in or near cities often face a wide range of threats including industrial and agricultural pollution, sewage effluent, dams, and habitat destruction (from logging, mining, and urban sprawl).

Wilderness rivers appear on the list when there is an ill-advised proposal to build a dam, open a mine, or rip a road into one of these dwindling reservoirs of beauty and biodiversity.

What would you say are the top three most common threats facing Canada's rivers?

Pollution, dams, and industrial development have been the three most common threats to Canada's rivers for several decades. In recent years, climate change has emerged as an additional problem that jeopardizes the health of every river on Earth—through warmer water, changing water levels, and the introduction of alien or exotic species.

Dams feature prominently as a threat to many of these rivers. Are all dams problematic? Is it possible to generate hydroelectricity without devastating the surrounding watershed?

Large dams are widely acknowledged to be highly destructive of aquatic ecosystems, as well as wiping out wildlife habitat, displacing indigenous people, and creating a toxic form of mercury that accumulates in the food chain. Far less harmful are smaller hydroelectric systems called run-of-the-river projects, which rely on the natural flow of a river rather than blocking, storing, and manipulating that flow.

Since seven percent of the world's renewable freshwater is carried by Canada's rivers, what are some of the strategies you would like to see in place to protect the quantity and quality of water in these systems?

The key elements of a successful water stewardship program are conserving water, eliminating or reducing the use of substances that pollute water, and avoiding activities that damage aquatic ecosystems.

Canada's water prices are among the cheapest in the industrialized world, encouraging wasteful use. Higher prices and stricter conservation standards (such as mandating low flow products and water-efficient appliances) would reduce water consumption. In Canada, protection for rivers is weak at the federal level. Unlike the United States, Canada has no national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, no national Clean Water Act, and no national Safe Drinking Water Act. Provincial laws, standards, and policies vary widely, creating an inconsistent patchwork quilt where strong national standards would be superior.

Given that Canada's freshwater system is of global importance, what can people (inside and outside Canada) do to support its protection?

One of the biggest threats to Canada's freshwater ecosystems is climate change, a problem that people in industrialized nations must take responsibility for and respond to promptly. North Americans are the world's most prolific users of both energy and water. Americans could help protect Canadian rivers by using less energy, as hydroelectric power generation is by far the largest single use of water in Canada, and much of the electricity generated is exported to the U.S. American pollution is a major cause of damage to Canadian rivers, both directly through water pollution and indirectly through air pollution that results in acid rain and the deposition of toxic substances. Finally, the removal of some dams in the Pacific Northwest would be a boon to some long-suffering salmon rivers in Canada, like the Okanagan.

How did you determine which rivers made this list?

Rivers are nominated by local communities, conservation groups, and Aboriginal people. Our selection committee evaluates each nomination based on three criteria—the national significance of the river (ecological, cultural, and economic values), the magnitude of the threats facing the river, and the opportunities in the coming year to make a positive intervention to either protect the ecological integrity of a river or restore its health.

Do you think threats facing Canadian rivers are comparable to those in the U.S.?

Compared to the U.S., Canada is fortunate to have a far greater number of wild rivers that are in relatively good shape—free from dams, largely free from pollution, and undisturbed by the intrusion of roads for resource extraction. However, our enormous natural wealth has made us somewhat cavalier about rivers, leading many Canadians to take them for granted. The threats facing rivers in more industrialized and urbanized parts of Canada are very similar to the problems endured by rivers in the U.S., as a glance at the most endangered American rivers will confirm.

Are most of the threats to these rivers issues that need to be addressed at the level of Canada's federal government, or are some of them under provincial or local jurisdiction?

A concerted effort by all levels of government—federal, provincial, and local—is needed in order to achieve our long-term goal of seeing a day when Canada no longer has endangered rivers. Industry, communities, environmental groups, and concerned individuals also have a vital role to play in reaching this ambitious goal.

This is the second year of naming Canada's most endangered rivers. Have any rivers improved since last year? How has the list affected public awareness?

The objectives of publicizing the plight of Canada's most endangered rivers are to assist local communities and organizations in protecting or restoring rivers, to educate the public about the problems facing these rivers, and to challenge leaders in business and government to become better stewards of the ecological arteries of our nation. There are some rivers that could appear on the endangered rivers list year after year—rivers like the Fraser, the Bow, the Detroit, and the St. Lawrence. It will take a concerted effort over a period of many years to restore the health of these rivers, although there has been progress made. Some types of industrial water pollution have declined because of stronger regulations, while the quality of sewage treatment is rising due to investment in better infrastructure.

We expect that the publicity generated by the endangered rivers list will result in accelerated progress in protecting and restoring Canada's rivers in the years ahead. Our confidence is based on the many successes of the American and British Columbia endangered rivers programs, which have prompted success stories on rivers like the Tatshenshini and Nechako here in B.C.

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