Two aboriginal bands in Alberta say their treaty rights have been violated by industrial overuse of the Athabasca River and they want veto power over some new oilsands projects.
"When it comes to those concerns, that's pretty much what we're seeking — veto power in regards to development," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, located downstream of the oilsands in Fort Chipewyan.
"We want to have say in development in our region in regards to being sustainable."
The Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree made the claim Thursday after releasing a study documenting how low river levels restrict their ability to use their land, most of which can only be reached by boat.
Researcher Craig Candler interviewed a total of 27 members from both bands. He asked them a set of standard questions on how water levels and water quality have affected them.
What he was told is that water levels have been declining for decades to the point that boats can no longer get into many lakes and tributaries that used to be productive hunting and fishing grounds.
"If people can't move around their territories, they cannot practise their traditions or their rights," he said.
Culture will be next to go
One Mikisew elder estimated that 80 per cent of the band's traditional territory is inaccessible for weeks at a time during the spring and summer. Other lakes and creeks have simply gone dry.
That breaks the treaty guarantees First Nations got such as being able to use their land for subsistence and to pass down their culture to young people, said elder Pat Marcel of Fort Chipewyan.
"I can't show them how I used to do it," he said. "I can't set traps where there's no muskrats. Some of them look at me and say, 'Did you really do that?'
"I have 21 great-grandchildren, and for them to never be able to live the way I lived is really something. My culture will be the next to go."
Band members acknowledge that problems in the Athabasca Delta predate the recent boom in the oilsands. Most say problems began in the 1960s and that drought and British Columbia's Bennett Dam have both played major roles.
But Candler said oilsands development over the last decade has made things worse.
"When the river is high, withdrawals probably don't matter as much," he said. "But when the river is low, every withdrawal is making things lower.
"If the river is low, every drop counts."
Government reviewing water management in Athabasca delta
The report says that at least 1,600 cubic metres of water per second need to be flowing in the river to allow aboriginals in the area full access to their territory.
It says that any industrial use that would bring that level below 400 cubic metres per second should require permission from the bands.
Current restrictions on water use vary greatly by season.
Government documents show restrictions begin when water flows drop to the bottom 20 per cent of the yearly range. For the first week of June, restrictions kick in at 715 cubic metres per second.
Alberta Environment is currently reviewing its water management of the Athabasca delta. A department spokeswoman said public consultations are expected over the next few months.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the total amount of the river's average annual flow used by industry is about 2.2 per cent.
Some operations recycle up to 90 per cent of the water they remove, the industry claims. And some operations have on-site water storage that allows them to stock up when the river is full so they don't have to withdraw water when it isn't.