A past, present and future look into environmental issues affecting Yukon waters

The Yukon is known for its sparkling rivers and clear lakes; however, this has not always been the case. Pollution and the effects of global warming have taken a toll on Yukon waters.

It’s only been in the last decade that preventative measures have been in place to help keep our waters clean.

The Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Ruth Massie, remembers what conditions were like in the past on Lake Laberge.

“In the ’60s and ’70s toxic waste would make its way into the water system from the mines,” she says.

“The fish began to look and taste different. It turns out, the waters were being contaminated with mercury and arsenic from the mining industries,” says Massie who is part of the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nations.

Toxicities also made their way into the Yukon waters, when the Whitehorse landfill used to be located by the McIntyre Creek, which flows into the Yukon River.

“There would be piles of tires and old oil barrels sitting in the waters for years. Back then no one really knew about environmental responsibility,” says Massie.

“In the ’70s it got to a point where we were afraid to eat the fish, hunt animals and eat berries, because we didn’t know what was in them. As a result, many of our people became very sick.”

Aside from toxic waste polluting the waters, toxic air borne particles were another source of contamination. In 1986, a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded, killing 31 people but affecting over 500,000 due to radioactive particles being released in the air.

These contaminated air particles made their way across the circumpolar regions, eventually infecting the Lake Laberge area. These air contaminants, or “black carbons”, as Massie refers to them, caused algae to form in the water, as well as parasites.

“Over in Fox Lake, there was barely any contamination, but at Lake Laberge, there was so much. We used to be able to drink the water, but with the combination of pollutants from industries and the Chernobyl explosions, the water was no longer safe.”

Although the Canadian Government did water testing and put up mercury warning signs by Lake Laberge, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that practices were put into place to stop contaminants from getting into the water system. The waters were tested more frequently, and the signs were taken down once the mercury levels subsided.

However, in recent years funding for environmental initiatives has not increased. Determined to keep their water clean, the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nations took matters into their own hands.

In 2000, a group of volunteers began to work on a project to clean the shores. The project took three years, as they encountered a wide variety of debris that had collected over the decades.

Currently, the waters of Lake Laberge are deemed safe, but the prior pollution did have an impact on the Ta’an Kwach’an culture. A lot of people could not eat off the land and were forced to buy their food from stores.

“Culture is passed down through word of mouth. When we have to stop our traditional practices, our culture does not always get passed on to the next generation. I was always taught that what we do will affect the next seven generations. I’m not entirely sure if seven generations from now will know all about our culture,” says Massie.

Aside from pollution, global warming is also affecting Yukon waters. Glaciers have been melting more rapidly, and have begun to take a toll on aquatic wildlife and water quality. Salmon spawning in particular, is at risk.

“The floods can cause the salmon to be displaced. Also, flooding can alter oxygen levels in the water which can also have harmful effects on salmon,” says Bob Van Dijken, water technician for the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Salmon is not only an important industry to the Yukon, it also has cultural significance for First Nations people.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information available to put a permanent stop to the problem. Funding for environmental research has been declining,” says Van Dijken.

Conditions in the upper Yukon River can also have a major impact on both wildlife and the economy. In 2012, flooding caused a portion of the Alaska Highway between Watson Lake and Teslin to wash out, putting a halt on transportation. As a result, there was a shortage of produce at many grocery stores and restaurants.

“Water levels in glacial regions have been observed to increase for the last few decades as a result of increased precipitation and high-elevation snow/glacier melt. This is becoming problematic in the upper Yukon system with increased flooding,” says Richard Janowicz, manager of the Yukon Government hydrology water resources branch.

“Upper Yukon River is impacted significantly, with increasing annual peak flows and water levels observed on Atlin Lake/River and Marsh Lake,” he adds.

Although the quality of water in the Yukon has improved significantly, the quantity is proving to be problematic.

Earth Day provides an opportunity for Yukoners and other circumpolar residents to reflect on what they can do to help prevent further flooding and prolong the quality of the region’s waters.