Skip to main content

A drying delta

From food to transportation, water is life for Indigenous peoples living in the remote Peace-Athabasca Delta. But in the face of climate change, their survival depends on their ability — and willingness — to adapt.

Industry and climate change are affecting water levels in the Peace-Athabasca Delta.Dave Bajer/CBC

At one time, the little blue cabin on the shores of the Athabasca River was brimming with life: a mother, a father and their 15 children coming together to hunt and gather, share family meals and tackle the many chores.

“We prayed as a family, we picked berries as a family,” recalls 71-year-old Alice Rigney, whose childhood was spent in the two-bedroom structure in a place called Jackfish, a northeastern Alberta fishing spot.

“When it was time to make dry fish, we made dry fish together. Even the kids, each at their own post.”

After unwinding the twine that holds the door closed, Rigney pauses for a moment to take it all in. The empty cabin, the peeling paint, the calendar from 2012 hanging on the wall.

Rigney, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), spent the first five years of her life in this place an hour’s boat ride away from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., before being sent to residential school.

Visiting the cabin now brings back happy memories, even though a lot has changed.

Indigenous woman stands inside a old cabin.
Alice Rigney stands in the old kitchen of her childhood home in Jackfish, Alta.
Aerial view of a small number of buildings on a river.
Jackfish, Alta., is a popular fishing spot on the Athabasca River about an hour away by boat from Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
A group of laughing Indigenous people outside a blue cabin.
Alice Rigney, right, and family memberes enjoy time together outside the blue cabin where she grew up in Jackfish, Alta.
Trees and water seen through a cabin window.
The Peace-Athabasca Delta can be seen through the original windows on Rigney’s childhood home.
images expandAlice Rigney spent her childhood in the two-room cabin on the banks of the Athabasca River. She is worried about the changes in the delta.

Rigney points through the original windows, past the maple tree planted by her dad and toward the Peace-Athabasca Delta beyond. Her connection to the land was forged in her childhood but, like the cabin, it’s a relationship that has been altered.

“They say a delta changes, you know, we know that. But not at the rate that it’s happening.”

Rigney has seen the changes to the landscape first-hand.

She says the plants and animals have suffered. Fewer birds land in the nearby bird sanctuary during spring and fall migration, and hunters say the number of animals has dwindled.

In her eyes, it all connects to the water.

“There was one lake here we call Egg Lake. A couple of years ago, I went there and I was able to walk pretty well across,” she says.

“It used to be eight feet of water.”

Aerial photo shows small lakes scattered through a wetland area
Wetlands within Peace-Athabasca Delta. Flooding is crucial for the delta’s hundreds of perched basins. (Parks Canada/Twitter)

A changing delta

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the second-largest freshwater delta in the world.

Mostly situated in the massive Wood Buffalo National Park, the 3,900-square-kilometre delta is home to over 1,000 lakes. The entire wetland complex is important for migrating birds, bison, moose and black bears.

But it lies downstream from several major industrial sites, with the Alberta oilsands along the Athabasca River to the south and the Peace River’s hydroelectricity dams to the west.

Map shows locations of Fort Chipewyan and Jackfish, the Peace and Athabasca rivers and the boundary of the Peace-Athabasca Delta
The Peace-Athabasca Delta is mainly located inside Wood Buffalo National Park; the remainder is either within Indigenous territories or is Alberta government land. Both Fort Chipewyan and the Jackfish fishing camp are within the delta’s boundary. (CBC)

Industry has been the main driver of change in the region, such as water used by the oilsands or changes in flow caused by the dams.

But now another factor is in play: climate change.

The effects of climate change are already more pronounced in northern Canada. Annual average temperatures in the region have increased by 2.3 degrees — more than twice the global average — since the mid-20th century.

That means the impacts of industry on the northern Alberta delta are amplified, says Caroline Bampfylde, an ecosystem scientist and data analyst who works with the two First Nations — Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan — on their community-based monitoring programs.

“Climate change exacerbates any other impacts that industry will have on the landscape in terms of drying,” says Bampfylde, referring to increased evaporation and decreased flows.

Bruce Maclean, whose consulting company has worked with the community-based monitoring program for about a decade, says it can be complicated to measure changes in the region’s water.

But one thing is certain, he says: in the last 60 years, river flow rates have been noticeably lower from late August to mid-October.

Flow rates affect river depths at what are called pinch points — that is, areas where wider sections of the river narrow, Maclean says. When the flow is low, the river’s depth at those pinch points drops to 1.2 metres.

“When flow rates are below 500 cubic metres per second on the Athabasca River, that translates into widespread difficulty navigating,” he says.

Flow changes have also altered what Maclean calls the spring “recharge” of the region through ice-jam flooding.

Many of the delta’s small lakes exist as perched basins. These shallow areas are at a higher elevation than the delta’s three rivers — the Peace, Athabasca and Birch — and rely on semi-regular flooding to replenish them. When filled, they provide important habitat for wildlife like muskrats and birds.

But without flooding, they dry up and are replaced by vegetation.

According to Parks Canada, the delta has seen an average decrease in surface water of 0.002 per cent per year since 1984.

Scenic of a dam on a river
The W.A.C. Bennett Dam, which has operated since 1968 on the Peace River in northern B.C., has decreased the frequency of flooding events in the Peace-Athabasca Delta.
Aerial view of ice-jammed river under a bridge
The ice-jammed Athabasca River under Highway 63 in Fort McMurray in April 2020.
Aerial view of buildings surrounded by floodwaters
Floodwaters surround Fort McMurray’s Keyano College campus in April 2020.
Aerial view of flooded campground with ice-jammed river behind it.
The ice-jammed Peace River in 2018 caused some community flood but helped raise water levels in the delta.
images expandThe frequency of ice-jam floods has decreased considerably since the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was constructed in B.C. The most recent flood, in 2020, was devastating for communities along the Peace and Athabasca rivers but replenished delta waters to levels that hadn’t been seen since the mid-90s, says Parks Canada.

Since the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was completed in 1968, ice jamming has become more infrequent, Maclean says.

While there were significant floods in 1996, 1997 and 2020, Maclean says that, with a few exceptions, the area has lost the ice-jam floods, the principal mechanism for recharge.

“You’re having less ice jams,” he says. “And evaporation from those [perched basins] is going to increase, so your net loss of water will be faster.

“You almost need … more frequent flooding to maintain the ecosystem.”

Instead, he says, the opposite is happening.

Maclean says that while the oilsands and hydroelectricity dams have had the most impact so far, climate change will become the bigger factor going forward, especially in the next 40 to 50 years.

“It will make the Athabasca River fundamentally a different river in the future.”

What it means to lose access

A muddy road leading to a river
In winter, the ice road crosses many waterways, like this one seen in September just outside of Fort Chipewyan. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

For thousands of years, the Peace-Athabasca Delta has been populated by Indigenous people drawn by the area’s rich bounty of fish, wildlife, water and plants.

Residents of Fort Chipewyan, which was settled in 1788, rely on its waterways for transportation in the summer and the snow and ice used to build seasonal roads in the winter.

Increased evaporation and decreased flows mean less ice is formed in the winter.

And that ice gets a lot of traffic. Fort Chipewyan residents travel across the delta and Lake Athabasca on snowmobiles to access their cabins. They drive on winter roads to travel to Fort McMurray to the south and Fort Smith, N.W.T., to the north.

“There needs to be 30 centimetres of ice for it to be safe,” says Bampfylde. “With climate change … it’s really shrinking the season, or the period, in which people can safely travel on the delta.”

Two people in winter gear stand on a snowy road
The lack of water affects winter transportation. Less ice means fewer days of safe travel on ice roads, like this one connecting Fort Chipewyan, Alta., to Fort Smith, N.W.T. (David Thurton/CBC)

Bampfylde, like Maclean, seeks better understanding by combining scientific data and Indigenous observations. In her case, that became a research retrospective looking at ice conditions of the delta over the last 100 years.

It found that in the last century, the maximum thickness of the ice dropped by 10 centimetres.

That means 10 fewer days of safe travel, she says. Given that the winter roads are only open for about 90 to 100 days, that lost time is significant.

“If [temperatures] continue to increase that’s going to make matters much worse because they’ll have less time to travel out on the land,” she says.

And for a community that relies on those winter roads for access to groceries, fuel and family, the cost of those lost days is substantial.

Rigney says she has witnessed the changes during her lifetime. Areas of the delta that were once commonly used for fishing or hunting have become inaccessible.

“[Places] where my dad used to go hunt … you can’t get to them,” she says.

Man in a red boat checks his fishing nets
Morgan Voyageur checks his fishing nets near Jackfish, Alta. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Generations of change

Morgan Voyageur has been fishing these waters for his entire life. Today, he moves along the length of a net he’d stretched across the river the day before, carefully untangling whitefish, jackfish and — to the surprise of some anglers — even burbot. Some are released back into the river; the rest become part of the day’s catch.

Like the others, the 41-year-old has observed changes in the levels of the delta’s many waterways.

“We will get sandbars and mudflats. Rock bars will start showing again and those are potential for accidents,” says Voyageur, another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation member who works with the community-based monitoring program.

But lower water levels don’t just affect transportation. Voyageur says he has noticed warming temperatures in the channels, which could disrupt an important food source.

“Water temperature is much higher now,” he says. “It used to only reach 19 degrees Celsius, but now we’re getting up to 22 degrees Celsius, some places even 23.”

Those temperatures can lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. With less oxygen, the fish will either die off or move on to colder water.

Indigenous man hangs fish to dry in the sun
The delta’s waterways are a source of food for residents of Fort Chipewyan. Archie Cardinal, a member of the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association, hangs whitefish to dry during a September fish camp at Jackfish, Alta. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Voyageur is happy that Indigenous knowledge is being incorporated into scientific monitoring to help understand the changes happening in the landscape.

“My people have been around here for over 13,000 years. And only now the Western science is starting to listen to our elders.”

Voyageur says passing on that knowledge is important both to the scientific community and to the next generation. He says his life’s work is to teach his son everything he knows about the land.

“Us Dene, we have a law. It is, ‘Pass on what you know and share what you have.’”

Finding ways to adapt

Indigenous man in lifejacket stands in front of a river
Robert Grandjambe has been on the waters of the Peace Athabasca Delta for decades. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Robert Grandjambe skims along the surface of Lake Athabasca on his boat. The 61-year-old Mikisew Cree guide has been on the water for decades — and it shows. He turns into the delta, weaving his way onto the Fletcher River.

Each sharp turn is effortless. He avoids sandbars that change from week to week and trees that have been pushed into the water with the previous winter’s melting ice.

He never looks behind, always pushing forward. And it’s an attitude he has adopted when he thinks about the further effects of climate change.

“With the changing environment, we — as human beings — we have to start adapting,” he says.

“We see the impacts of our activities, of manipulating the land.”

Grandjambe has a passion for learning about the land. His boat has been home to research teams studying the delta, and he says that education is the way forward — along with a better working relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and a willingness to meet change head-on.

Two boats, one red and one is green. The green one has a flat bottom.
Grandjambe believes humans need to adapt to the changing climate and decreased water levels in the delta. He owns a number of boats including the green-flat bottom vessel that can travel in shallow depths. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Amid the growing concern about dropping water levels, Grandjambe points to his boat, a tangible example of his determination to take action.

“I know the water’s going down, it’s going down all over the world,” he says. “This boat that I have, it’s a flat-bottom boat and I can go in four inches of water rather than having a speedboat, which requires 12.”

Even the prospect of a shortened ice-road season doesn’t faze him. The remote community is used to planning ahead, he says. It’s another opportunity for adaptation, a lesson others should embrace.

“You have to do something about the changing environment,” he says. “Because it’s not going to stop no matter how much you complain.”

Looking to the future

Chidlren on swingset at dusk
Rigney worries about what the next 50 years or so will mean for younger residents of Fort Chipewyan, like these children playing on a swingset on the banks of Lake Athabasca. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

For Alice Rigney, the future is unsettling. She spent 12 years in residential school and then continued her education in Edmonton. Her time at the Jackfish cabin was limited. Now, as a grandmother, she searches for ways to reconnect.

“I had been away from this for too long that I made it my point to come back and renew what I had.”

Sitting outside her blue cabin, she feeds a fire and gives thanks for its warmth. She’s frying up fresh pickerel for family and friends who have gathered at Jackfish.

“Fire is a connection to the greater spirit,” she says.

“When I have my grandchildren here, we sit around a fire and we tell stories, tell jokes.”

Her grandchildren are young. And that’s why she worries about what the next 50 or so years will bring.

“I have a nine-year-old grandson. What is it going to look like for him? How long before Mother Nature reclaims the destroyed land to make it livable again?”

In the same way that Grandjambe relies on his ability to adapt and Voyageur relies on the Indigenous knowledge that has been shared through the generations, Rigney relies on her resilience to find a path forward.

“It’s stubbornness,” she says. “We have to come back here and try and do what we always did for all those generations past.”

Pink and orange sunset over a lake
Stunning colours of the sun setting over Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)
CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices | About CBC News
Corrections and clarifications | Submit a news tip
About the Author